If Conor Oberst shed anything by releasing his new album under his given name, it was the sense of momentousness that makes Bright Eyes albums more than something for listeners to put on, play, and ponder only when they feel like it. That's not a knock against the seriousness of Bright Eyes as an enterprise, or Conor Oberst as an outgrowth, though there is something to be savored in the kind of looseness engendered here.
For this record—notable also for coming out on Merge, as opposed to his stalwart Omaha label, Saddle Creek—Oberst decamped to Mexico with a group of players he took to calling The Mystic Valley Band. The songs they came up with still live and die on Oberst's lyrics, which reach imagistic heights as high as any on Bright Eyes records (Fevers And Mirrors still being the best), and sometimes even higher. The album opener finds Oberst injecting a rich sense of place ("Watch the migrants smoke in the old orange grove and the red rocket blaze over Cape Canaveral") with the kind of emotional shots that make places ripe for sensing ("I watched your face age backward changing shape in my memory"). Many of the songs after follow similar travelogue cues, with a wandering range of sounds and styles to suit. "Sausalito" and "I Don't Want To Die (In The Hospital)" rock more freely than anything in the Bright Eyes songbook, and—like much else on an album that counts as more than just a casual anomaly—Oberst himself sounds enlivened by the chance to listen in and sing while he's at it.