For artists that have been around for as long as prolific singer/songwriter Conor Oberst, there is always a turning point in ones career. For Oberst, this undeniably came in between the time gap of late winter 2005 and the spring of 2007 in which Oberst, following a double album release of the career defining “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” and “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” went to “get clean”. What followed was a complete change to the Bright Eyes moniker. It was no longer an alias for Oberst to drive his songwriting machine through, but an actual full-fledged band. The last release under Bright Eyes; 2007′s Cassadaga was just a glimpse of the polarizing path Oberst had chose to take; a path void of his signature lo-fi angst in favor of a grander alternative country sound. Oberst then dropped the Bright Eyes name altogether in 2008 with his self-titled release “Conor Oberst”. Fast forward almost a year and Outer South, the second official album under the Conor Oberst title is here.
Outer South is a collection of 16, yes SIXTEEN songs clocking in at a little over an hours time. The initial jaw dropping excitement of the thought of 16 new songs to add to my already swollen Conor Oberst iTunes archive was quickly turned into gut-wrenching dissapointment as I played through Outer South for the first time. Out of the 16 new songs, 7 of them feature vocalists other than Oberst from his Mystic Valley Band which seemed like downright blasphemy to me. However, after some time to digest the songs, it’s not as bad as it sounds. In fact, some of these guys actually did an alright job, considering the footsteps that had to follow.
“Big Black Nothing”, “Bloodline” and “Worldwide” are all definite contributors to Outer South. While nothing quite overcomes Obersts looming shadow, the aforementioned tracks do their best to at least keep up with the pace set by Oberst. However, the other four tracks don’t fare so well. “Air Matress” is a keyboard driven pop diddy that I would have never fathomed hearing on a release of Oberst’s. The high pitched whiny vocals, layered on top of a lone speedy synthesizer makes me feel like I’m surrounded by a bunch of dorky kids in sweatbands at a hellogoodbye concert. “Eagle on a Pole”, redone and rerecorded from 2008′s “Conor Oberst” is painfully slow, and at four and a half minutes, is easily the worst song on the album. The closer “Snake Hill” is not a bad song really, but using it as an album closer rather than “White Shoes” was a monumental mistake.
Maybe I’m blinded by my fanboy goggles, but It’s hard for me to really hate any song that Oberst puts out. If theres one word I would use to describe him, it’s consistent. There is nothing different with Outer South, except that maybe his sound is just getting more and more mainstream. Out of the 9 songs penned by him, it’s hard to find a song I really don’t like. “Slowly (Oh So Slowly)” and “Nikorette” are both radio-ready alt-country jams that would undeniably appeal to most mainstream audiences. “Ten Women” finds Oberst doing his best to channel his inner Bob Dylan while “To All The Lights In The Windows” blasts religion, treading lyrical territory very familiar to any Oberst release. “White Shoes” is a drawn out acoustic ballad that brings back memories of other epic album closers like “Milk Thistle” and “Lime Tree”, and should have gotten the nod to follow suit. “Roosevelt Room” is a searing political anthem, taking abrasive shots at the former Bush administration and is easily the album’s standout track, as well as one of the best songs Oberst has penned in the past decade.
While Outer South will undoubtedly be another polarizing release, drawing out both the new followers and the pissed off elitists who want Oberst to be 18 again, it’s nice to see Conor taking things a little less serious. Don’t misunderstand me, Outer South is still nowhere in the same league as “I’m Wide Awake..” or “Lifted” but it’s probably safe to say that he’s long since passed his prime. Once you learn to accept that, Outer South becomes a much easier album to enjoy.
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