Review | Scales Always Find a Way to Level Out

Bright Eyes is, sometimes, my favorite band. It depends on when I'm asked and who asks me. Either way, they're up there and untouchable in my mind. I first heard of them from a friend I talked with through the internet. I finally heard them when browsing through my sister's plethora of MP3s on the family computer. They were the gateway band that led me to the wide, wide, world of independent music, a huge source of enjoyment in my everyday life. Just the amount of money this band has led me to spend on the genre -- damn. It was definitely life changing in many ways, and it feels great to claim that.

Back then, I had never heard arrangements so interesting & layered, or lyrics so moving & well-crafted. Every night, I laid down with my CD player under my pillow listening to these tracks. I was in awe of how well someone could say exactly what they wanted to in a song, yet still have it rhyme & fit the structure of the song. It was supernatural. It was someone speaking the language of songwriting so fluently that it was stunning.

Their latest full studio effort, Cassadaga (cah-suh-day-guh) , is just about to be released. Advanced copies & pre-orders have already reached the hands of their many fans, and reactions are leaning to one side: the bad side. The band has taken a turn for a more traditional country western/folk/americana sound. Gone are the introspective, moving, and maybe even whiny songs meant purely to express something for the sake of staying sane. In their place are extroverted, political, protest songs constructed for inspiring action, not navel-gazing.

A lot of bands seem to go through this at some point. It's always fascinated me a bit - who do you think of when creating art? Your fans, whom you owe your livelihood to? Or should you make what you artistically feel compelled to do in your heart? What causes this shift away from confession? Is it because when you're a poor, small band, life is not so good, and you have a lot to write about? And that once you hit success, life generally gets better and you have to look elsewhere for inspiration?

Whatever the answers are, I have their new album. I've heard one or two singles released on their website. What follows are notes from my first listen of Bright Eyes' sixth studio album, Cassadaga, to be released in early April on Saddle Creek Records.

1. Clairaudients (Kill or be Killed) - Oh, right. Non-music, ambient noise always starts off every album. Here, a very sincere woman describes Cassadaga, a town in Florida with a supernatural history and psychic community. There's distorted noise in the background, like an orchestra warming up, it seems to try and build fear. The guitar kicks in at the climax and then it's straight folksy. Conor lays the midwestern accent thick as the strings hit with some more phone conversation clips, but when the drums tighten, it hardly sounds like folk music anymore. I get a flash from Silverchair's Neon Ballroom.

2. Four Winds - A serious country fiddle riff rips up the intro. It's great, it makes pop fans think, "Hey country fiddle isn't so bad." I've already heard this song many times when it was released as a single. The verses are great, just in terms of cadence and sort of staccato hits with his voice - "Your class, your cash, your country, sect, your name or your tribe / There's people always trying to keep them alive" to "It's off to old Dakota where a genocide sleeps / The black hills, the badlands, the callous east / I've buried my ballast, I've made my peace / With four winds, leveling the pines." Album standout.

3. If the Brakeman Turns My Way - It starts off sounding like Modern Times Dylan, and there are certainly worse things to impersonate, but it sometimes comes off as faux-americana. Maybe this is one of those that will grow on me over time. The chorus has some power & oomph to it and there are a lot of lovely standout lyrics. It works as a panic attack come down -- "All your friends and sedatives mean well but make it worse / every reassurance just magnifies the doubt / better find yourself a place to level out." Like, if this were just text, teenage girls would get tattoos of it but then they would hear the song and all the slide guitar and all the country references and then get turned off.

4. Hot Knives - A fuzzy, distorted fast strum. The drum beat reminds me of The Decemberist's "The Infanta," for some reason. So far, it's one of those running, tumbling, rolling songs that keeps briskly moving. There's a line with a pregnant pause spotlight — "yeah i've been fucked / so what?" - that only illicits groans. It's not a lyrical hotspot at all and I don't know what it's for.

5. Make a Plan to Love Me - It reminds me of the first time I heard "False Advertisements" on Lifted. It suggested slow music from another era, a kind of stately ballroom dance string piece. It's not what you expect from the warbling, rough, shaky voice of Oberst. Unlike "False Advertisements," nothing here feels very authentic or particularly memorable.

6. Soul Singer in a Session Band - I first heard this song a few months ago when the live version hit the music blogs. Played live, it has a kick to it. Here, it almost sounds tired. Less energy, no "oomph" to accompany each line. I think I would have liked it more if I had no expectations, because it is a very singable melody with some clever lines, if you're into cleverness - "I had a lengthy discussion / about the power of myth / with a postmodern author / who didn't exist."

7. Classic Cars - I can honestly see myself getting into this song eventually, after a lot of listens, but it sounds so by-the-book. "The best country singers die in the backj of classic cars / so if I ever get too hungry for a suitcase or guitar / just think of them all alone in the dark" is a beautiful line, and namechecking country puts it firmly within that world. Judging it by country standards, it's almost overwritten, and musically it's nothing new. But it's new territory for Bright Eyes, so I think I'll stick with it just because of lines like that.

8. Middleman - This is more like it. The intro has an intriguing sound, with a violin over a cool hand drum rhythm section. The words don't pique my interest, but the sound does. He sings about the idea of a middleman as a version of hell, like limbo. But, again — it feels distant. While musically this is an easy listen, Bright Eyes has trained us to get a buzz on the bare confessional, and "I've become the middleman" kind of falls short.

9. Cleanse Song - At first, it echoes a bit of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn's electronic leanings. When it gets running, it's really good. It's a detox song, and the contrast in sincerity and intimacy is heavy compared to something like "Make A Plan To Love Me." The Southern California namedrops are a delight to my ego, and despite its subject matter, somehow sounds cheerful and sunny.

10. No One Would Riot For Less - I first heard this song on a low quality, fuzzy, barely audible MP3 recorded from Oberst playing it live on Air America radio. It was called, "Hell is coming, Hell is here" back then. I like this title better. The studio version sounds much better - adequately dark & moody. He said it was about the world running out of oil, which, if you're at all familiar with Oberst's kinda reductive but well-intentioned politics, sounds like it might be a nightmare. Still, he gets through it with atmosphere, and there's nothing here to make you cringe.

11. Coat Check Dream Song - First thing I notice is a cool bass line. The vocal quality is appropriately floaty & dream-like. It's not a track that grabs me on first listen but it's a nice change of pace from the Dylan/Crosby/Stills/Nash/Young act that's on parade. I don't even know if that's a fair judgment, but it's the first one that hits you on the first spin of this disc.

12. I Must Belong Somewhere - This used to be a rarity, a song recorded and spread through the internet that does not appear on any regular album or EP. Back then, it was sparse. It was indie folk, just Oberst, a guitar, and a sense of urgency in his voice. This studio version is amped up on polish. It's country-fied with all the usual suspects: Slide guitar, rock organ, etc. Lyrically, it's just a list of things. Oberst himself has admitted this. But there is a lot of potential for depth in the simple comparisons, which is what makes it work. In both versions, his voice is moving in its sincerity. A great song, and this new version doesn't take anything away.

13. Lime Tree - The last three albums ended on big, huge, cacophonous explosions. It makes sense that we would end quietly, but it still hit me as a surprise. The first thing I notice is the strings: They are sharp. These are, like, million dollar violins here. They have a crisp quality to them that reminds you of the soundtrack to horror movies. The way they seamlessly swell in and out almost distracts you from the rest of the music. As the song progresses, they break away from the established structure and almost play a freestyle riff every few seconds. The lyrics themselves are darkly mysterious, in a world almost entirely of poetic metaphor. It's hauntingly sparse & quiet. I like it.

Then it ends. You don't even expect it because there's no build or wind down or familiar song structure that tells you this is when it ends. No climax, no bridge, no nothing. "I took off my shoes and walked into the woods / I felt lost and found with every step I took," it ends, and Oberst holds the last word. As soon as he lets it go, the world of the album dissipates. The CD restarts and you're hearing "Clairaudients" again. Were it not for the looping playback, it would be unsettling.

Overall? I'm not disappointed. This band never lets me down, though this isn't Lifted or Fevers & Mirrors. I have complete faith that most of the songs, if not all of them, will work their way into my heart. I didn't like a single track on I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, and it eventually became an integral part of my CD collection.