The bummer about boy geniuses is that they feel ancient so soon. One day Conor Oberst is a teenage Dylan, scribbling metaphors while his friends’ band-camp orchestras weave daisy chains around him, the next he’s a 27-year-old J. Alfred Prufrock, singing, “I got old in an instant / Now I’m all on my own.”
Granted, he’s not just grasping at his own mortality on Cassadaga: There are shades of Iraq on the electro-symphony “Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed),” September 11 on the Zen-folk ballad “Cleanse Song,” and other premature demises on “Classic Cars,” where the shrugged-off nostalgia (“It’s not that often, but I think of her sometimes”) is straight out of Leonard Cohen’s “Chelsea Hotel No. 2.” But when he thinks about a friend’s abortion on “Lime Tree,” noting that he’s in his own prime years to have children, these wide-lens issues point Oberst to a personal question: Is his chance to settle down passing him by?
If so, praise be to nonstop touring, because Oberst’s countryish genre studies have deepened with a very adult loneliness. And the unique electronic knob-twiddling here suggests there’s more growing to come. Knowing no nouns he can’t spin into archetypes, Oberst doesn’t really see The End as the end, anyway. As a tarot card reader tells him on the first track, sometimes the death card just means change.