It’s not immediately obvious why Conor Oberst decided to abandon the Bright Eyes moniker for his new self-titled album. Musically, it isn’t all that much different than his previous work, though it does rely more on folk sensibilities than 2007’s Cassadaga, which was rooted more strongly in country. The main difference here is in the tone of the lyrics. On Cassadaga, Oberst was fatalistic, whereas on the new album he allows himself moments to revel, if not in optimism, then at least in the gleam of possibility.
“Moab” represents the greatest change in Oberst — where he used to bury himself in analysis, “Moab” is a (relatively) simple song about leaving things behind you as they go. He doesn’t allow himself too much time to relax, though. Even on the album’s most spirited songs, he can’t help but remind himself that the world is burning down around him, whether he’s pining for a simple life on a houseboat (“Sausalito”) or singing about minimal revolutionary ideas like delivering mail by hand (“Get-Well-Cards”).
Album closers “Souled Out!” and “Milk Thistle” are like updated versions of “Only the Good Die Young,” preaching the importance of life over afterlife, with the latter emphasizing the lyric, “If I go to heaven, I’ll be bored as hell.” In short, Oberst’s optimism looks a whole lot like other people’s pessimism — he simply can’t express happiness without underlining it with cynicism.
It’s hard to believe that Oberst is just 28, as his old soul sensibility is wise beyond his years. Conor Oberst may not be the dramatic departure that the name change would suggest, but it’s still a welcome addition to his catalogue.