Much has been about Conor Oberst and his distinctly ragged singing voice and self effacing/exalting lyrics. The range of tags assigned him is “whiny kid who can’t sing” on one end and “the new Dylan” on another. As with all things, the truth is somewhere in the middle.
Like Dylan, Oberst is not a traditionally “good” singer, his lyrics are sometimes politically charged and often surreal, and he came into a great deal of fame while still in his early twenties. And there’s a hubris in Oberst’s work that is often credited as pretentiousness, which many people forget was a criticism of Dylan early on.
But one of the biggest differences is that of producer Mike Mogis. Where Dylan’s work was largely free of frills and overdubs, the production here is incredibly theatrical. The album opens with a group of friends driving in a car, and the first song starts playing on the stereo, sounding canned as the driver quietly sings along before the sound transitions and we’re listening to the song free of the stereo middleman, until the song ends and fades into a sound collage. There are also “false” starts, pseuedo-vinyl pops, orchestra “mistakes,” “impromptu” conversations mid song with band members, and crowd noises. Whether this is contrived or brilliant depends directly on the listener’s perception, but it’s well done nonetheless. Every sound and transition is confidently and intentionally executed, often to great success–like the uplifting Bowl of Oranges between the masochistic Lover I Don’t Have to Love and the doom-ridden Don’t Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come (my favorite cut), creating a moment of light to keep that side of the record from being too overbearingly gloomy. The arrangements also are always as near to perfect as possible, like the electric rhythm guitar that tears through Method Acting or the Hammer Dulcimer that carries the excellent From a Balance Beam or the marimba and drum machine on Lover I Don’t Have To Love. Every instrument serves the purpose of carrying Conor’s weary voice through the stories he tells.
In the end, the overall mood of the record is a mix of nihilistic hopelessness and indefatigable joy, often within the same song. Granted, given Oberst’s ties to the emo scene, the majority of the album may be wrapped in sadness, but the moments where the happiness shines through are not touched by that darkness. Even in Don’t Know When, surrounded by verses of apocalypse and Old West justice, he says of his friends, “we will share our fears/and they will know how I love them…I’m nothing without their love.” It’s this lightness that keeps the album from falling under the weight of its own youthful jadedness.