Cassadaga is a Seneca Indian word translating at “rocks beneath the water”. The Earth motifs and lilting country rock with a taste for danger both harking back to that previous career watermark, ‘Lifted…’. Most of the songs measure up: the bouncy ‘Four Winds’ showing him unafraid of blanket radio play, while ‘Make A Plan To Love Me’ is the most instantaneously beautiful song of his career – a tale of romantic negligence that’s lent a barbed, poison-ivy edge. Really, only ‘Middleman’ and ‘I Must Belong Somewhere’ sound like filler. This is about as close to a bid for mainstream acceptance as you’re going to get from Bright Eyes, and while that makes ‘Cassadaga’ veer dangerously close to the stylings of the accused, two things redeem him: the fragility of his cracked voice, and the fact that you’re as likely to hear a Conor Oberst song simply about harsh treatment from women as you are to find him taking tea round Peel Acres. Instead, these songs are testaments to the resilience of the human spirit, and Conor paints a collection of people all learning to cope. The desperate housewife of ‘Hot Knives’ who reacts to her husband’s infidelity with hedonistic revenge; the ‘Soul Singer In A Session Band’, the person with the gift that their occupation stifles; ‘Classic Cars’’ tale of Mrs Robinson-style suburban scandal. Yet most pointed is ‘No One Would Riot For Less’ – a dystopian picture of a moral-free future world, which is essentially a tender song of two lovers learning to survive in a world where neighbour kills neighbour over boxes of fish fingers.
These aren’t sad songs, though. As Conor told us himself recently, “The thing about human beings, as imperfect as they are, they possess an incredible ability to reinvent themselves and become better than they were.” Could Conor be trying to pull that off himself? Possibly. As well as the grown-up lilt to the music, ‘Cleanse Song’ sees this self-confessed lush experiment with drying out. He finds it pretty boring, of course, but as the one overt first-person narrative on the album, it signals his own capacity to grow and change. Meanwhile, with the erstwhile hermit falling over himself to be interviewed, it sounds like he’s finally ready to be a big star. He’s made an album that will appeal as much to indie snobs as owners of records by mainstream singer-songwriters, and this could turn into Bright Eyes’ biggest contribution: in showing how absorbing introspection can be. Perhaps the likes of Blunt will be toppled by the shame.