Conor Oberst, 'Conor Oberst' (Merge)

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Conor Oberst
Critical Mass
Label: Merge

by Josh Modell

How much significance should be attached to the (presumably temporary) ditching of Conor Oberst's valuable emo-folk indie brand Bright Eyes? It's tempting to read his solo album as a statement of grown-upitude, his final step toward status as a songwriter for the ages, rather than the trembling voice of the all-ages crowd. Or is it just a lark, a quick leg stretch before returning to the responsibility of embodying Bright Eyes?

Turns out it's a little bit of both. Recorded in Mexico with a group of Oberst's friends dubbed the Mystic Valley Band, the album does an admirable job of living up to its low- key title (with spare acoustic tracks) and its situation (with loosey-goosey, classic-rock-indebted numbers). While the quiet ones run songwriting circles around the rockers, the whole thing gels remarkably well: Each mood lets the other breathe.

Some might balk at the simplistic country rock of "Sausalito" and "Moab" or the barrelhouse boogie-woogie of "I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital)," but there's plenty of contemplative Conor, too. Bookend tracks "Cape Canaveral" and the heartbreaking "Milk Thistle" strike slow, sad notes, offering the naked vulnerability that inspires fan devotion and Dylan comparisons. Content to be half-lovable, Conor Oberst takes some pressure off its namesake, allowing him to lean into, or away from, his strengths.

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