Tepoztlan, Morelas, Mexico is a place known for Aztec magic and extra-terrestrial sightings — so it only seems natural that Conor Oberst would head down there to record his latest album, his first solo effort in 13 years. After all, Oberst called the last Bright Eyes album Cassadega, which is the name of a Florida town well known for its community of psychics and seers. While weâ€™re talking about mysticism, itâ€™s a little hard to interpret the reason that Conor Oberst (Merge Records) is called a solo album. As far as I know, and please correct me if Iâ€™m wrong, Bright Eyes was (is?) Oberstâ€™s solo project. If he wants to put out an album under his own name, thatâ€™s understandable, but letâ€™s not be deluded into thinking that this represents a new direction for the one time wunderkind.
Yesterday was Vinyl Record Day. I missed it, but better late than never, I suppose. So for my homage to vinyl I will remind you of the words of the legendary Berry Gordy, who used to make sure that the words â€œItâ€™s Whatâ€™s In The Grooves That Countsâ€ appeared on all of his Motown releases. True â€˜dat. The point is, CDs may not have grooves, but the fact remains that it doesnâ€™t matter one whit what an album is called, or who it is credited to. In the end, all the really matters is whatâ€™s in the grooves.
Oberst has created an album of solid if unspectacular songs, played and sung tastefully. But if youâ€™re going to promote the fact that you traveled to a magical place to make an album, shouldnâ€™t the album have some magic? Iâ€™m not feeling it, and just as I donâ€™t know why this is a solo album and the Bright Eyes albums arenâ€™t, I donâ€™t understand why this couldnâ€™t have been recorded in Topeka or Tacoma as easily as Tepoztlan. Again, I donâ€™t begrudge him the trip to Mexico, but the trip is mentioned on the back cover of the CD as if it was an important element in the creation of this album.
The best tracks on the album are those that feature Oberst on acoustic guitar with minimal accompaniment. If itâ€™s something different that heâ€™s looking for, he might consider a completely acoustic album the next time out. Consider â€œMilk Thistle,â€ the albumâ€™s closing song. Itâ€™s a lovely and lonely meditation on mortality. Elsewhere, Oberst manages to bring a raucous sensibility to a deadly serious matter on â€œI Donâ€™t Want to Die (in a hospital).â€
This isnâ€™t a bad album, but itâ€™s not enough to talk about magic. Last year, Bruce Springsteen called his album Magic, and in the opinion of many, he delivered it. The world needs all the magic it can get right now. Talk is cheap.