CONOR OBERST AND THE MYSTIC VALLEY BAND – Outer South (2009)

Conor Oberst - Outer South I’m still not entirely sure if Conor Oberst’s previous solo album (no, not a Bright Eyes release, an actual solo album bearing his actual name – bear in mind I’m disregarding Soundtrack To My Movie and Here’s To Special Treatment, on the grounds that if I can’t listen to them, then they’re not real) needed to exist or not (for more information as to my thoughts on solo albums, check out my review of Steven Wilson’s Insurgentes), but songs like Souled Out!!!, Lenders In The Temple and I Don’t Wanna Die (In A Hospital) were good enough for me to forgive the album of its metaphysical transgressions. I thought it would be awhile before we heard from Mr. Oberst again, but less than a year later, we have Outer South another album bearing his name (and the name of his backing ensemble, The Mystic Valley Band). But whereas last year’s Conor Oberst felt like a natural extension of where Bright Eyes were trying (and largely failed to) go with Cassadaga, Outer South is a messy anomaly, at once a paean to an America that’s trapped in the yellowed edges of dusty postcards (assuming it ever existed at all) and a straight-faced tribute parody-folksters The Folksmen from A Mighty Wind.

And yes, you did read that right.

Now, it’s easy to get hyperbolic when you feel passionately one way or the other about something, but I feel that my critiques on this album are quite founded (you may disagree, and that’s okay – to quote David Barry, “Everyone’s entitled to an opinion and yours is wrong”). Specifically: the music on Outer South doesn’t feel as though as it’s coming from the hearts and minds of the people playing it, and (worse yet) that the whole of the album is so drearily prosaic that the album’s few good songs (Difference In Time)and I Got The Reason) get swallowed up in a dustbowl of unshakable ennui. If that’s too hyperbolic for you, allow me to rephrase: the album is so lifeless that when it does show some faint signs of life, the only emotional response one can have is indifference.

There’s no denying that Conor Oberst is a talented musician, but his strengths lay in wresting narratives (sometimes personal, sometimes not) out from his soul and sickly crooning them with every last ounce of energy he has; when he does this consistently, he’s captivating (i.e, his materpiece: 2002’s Lifted), and when he doesn’t, the results can vary widely. If you want to listen to something in this vein this year, I’d recommend Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Beware over this in a heartbeat.

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