by ANDREW MATSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & round the turn of the millennium, singer-songwriter Connor Oberst was the quintessential splitter, a guy you'd either love or hate. But a recent string of artistic successes -- culminating in his latest and most mature album, Cassadaga -- has quieted detractors of Oberst and his band, Bright Eyes.
To be sure, the 27-year-old still carries a lot of divisive baggage, and most of it lives in his mouth. His vocal tone, which ranges from fetal-position coo to hysterical bleat, strikes some people as false -- and when paired with his wordy, philosophical lyrics, pretentious. Add that to the fact that most of his lyrics are exceptionally dreary, and lots of people wrote him off as annoying and melodramatic. Some people still do.
But it's the vocal attack that gets people hating the hardest -- Oberst's breakdown cry/scream -- that hasn't shown up on Bright Eyes' last few albums. The lyrics have also gotten better, leaving behind much of their world-weariness.
Early albums Letting Off the Happiness and Fevers and Mirrors made Oberst a pre-MySpace indie sensation, a doe-eyed bleeding-heartthrob whose music created instant lifelong fans. Though his style has changed a little, there will always be a quaver in Oberst's voice and his lyrics will always be preachy. He's emotional and pretentious, and those are turn-offs for some people.
Bright Eyes' 2002 album -- Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground -- was a breakthrough into a stronger singing voice, smarter lyrics and adventurous arrangements and production styles. On Lifted, Oberst and Bright Eyes member (and producer) Mike Mogis developed dark electro-folk and barn-burning story-jams into band staples. Through the simultaneously released Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, both styles got fortified by fresh, if aggressive, anti-Bush lyrics. Both artistically and psychologically -- and the line between is always fine with Oberst -- Bright Eyes looked up from the ground and set goals: make good art; save the world.
It takes a romantic like Oberst to believe that a song can save the world, but he's in league with a few powerful dreamers. Before the last presidential election, Bright Eyes hopped a tour with Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M aimed at changing the national discourse and getting out the (presumably anti-Bush) vote. His commitment to deconstructing the current administration is best evidenced on YouTube. Dressed like Bob Dylan, Oberst's solo performance on Jay Leno of "When the President Talks to God" is pithy proof that poets can still rally crowds.
Cassadaga isn't as specific about citing evils. Its bitterness is worn smooth, and Oberst's lyrics are more universal than ever. Light years removed from his early screaming freak-outs, the album is focused, calm and adventurously produced. It all comes from Oberst better sharing his artistic burden: Mogis' arrangements take ghostly and powerful turns, incorporating background singers and improved string arrangements. Meanwhile, Bright Eyes' live show has improved from a more complete unity (members wear only white clothes onstage).
Bright Eyes still makes music that's not for everyone, but the band is tight and the whole endeavor has new purpose. Connor Oberst grew up.
In the past, naysayers might have bothered him. But not now, not with an album this good balanced on a head so level. From here on out, haters are simply swapping quality for a matter of taste: Bright Eyes is one of the best bands in America.
The Inlander Showcase Series presents Bright Eyes with Nik Freitas at the Big Easy on Saturday, Sept. 15, at 7 pm. $25. Visit www.ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.