Despite his seeming uninterest in being anointed the MySpace era's Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst has unquestionably spent the last few Bright Eyes records—particularly 2005's masterful I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning—honing his voice-of-a-generation folk-rock thing, writing incisively about war and television and the words that pass between the president and God. Unlike Uncle Bob's love songs, though, Oberst's have been pretty lousy.
That changes on Cassadaga, an album which doesn't want for voice-of-a-generation folk-rock: Opener "Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)" worries over the non-difference between the corporate and the colonial. "Four Winds" invokes not only the Great Satan and the Whore of Babylon, but the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran. In "No One Would Riot for Less," Nate Walcott's string arrangement swirls ominously in approximation of the "madness of the governments" Oberst declaims against.
Yet Cassadaga's best tunes are its most personal, and its least sweeping. "Classic Cars" is almost assuredly an account of Oberst's widely reported tryst with Winona Ryder, but rather than tawdry gossip, it offers a penetrating portrait of May-December romance. In "Make a Plan to Love Me," a sweet '60s-pop ballad, Oberst describes feeling neglected by a career-woman lady friend. (I know: Poor emo-folk heartthrob! But dude sells it.) "Cleanse Song," in which the singer takes "a detox walk through a Glendale park," even redeems the rehab remembrance, that most groan-worthy of rock-star clichés. What will this kid conquer next? Jock jams?