Conor Oberst continues to prove he is comfortable making music in just about any setting, recording this self-titled disc during a two-month stay in Tepoztlan, Mexico. No stranger to loosely framed concept albums (2002’s political The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground) or grand gestures (2005’s double release Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning) under his Bright Eyes moniker, Oberst has more recently taken to embodying a geographic location with his music. Cassadaga, Bright Eyes’ 2007 release, was mostly written about his stay in a Florida clairvoyant haunt of the same name. While Cassadaga continued to capitalize on trademark Bright Eyes elements (songs without choruses, Oberst’s nearly off-key emotive warble), the lyrics were what brought to life the fortune-telling community that inspired the album.
On Conor Oberst (being billed as his first solo album in 13 years), the musical elements speak more to his Mexican locale than the lyrics themselves. Recorded with the Mystic Valley Band-which happen to include permanent Bright Eyes member Nate Walcott-the disc prominently features twangy acoustic guitar set to tempos normally found on the country charts, mingled with electric piano and guitar. Although it’s subtle, each track definitely has a south-of-the-border flair without being overtly so. But that’s not to say that Oberst’s lyrics don’t tell any part of the story. Vivid imagery of deserts, open space and unobstructed starry nights filter throughout (“Sausalito,” “Eagle On A Pole”). Scenes of less-hectic life (the nighttime drag races and the snoozing postman highlighted in “Get-Well-Cards”) coupled with the New York City-living kiss-off, “NYC-Gone, Gone,” genuinely showcase an artist at peace with his surroundings, eking inspiration from the foreign scenery and traditions, transporting the listener to the relaxing, sunny landscape.
That’s not to say that all is cheery on Conor Oberst. The most musically upbeat track, “I Don’t Want To Die (In The Hospital)” has entirely morbid lyrics (Can you make a sound to distract the nurse/Before I take a ride in that long black hearse”); likewise, “Danny Callahan” tells the story of a young boy who succumbed to cancer. Regardless of subject matter, Oberst’s mix of vivid story-telling and beautifully simple acoustic guitar chords results in one of the best summer-listening albums of 2008-an auditory vacation to an exotic land for those of us stuck indoors behind desks during the veritable summer months.