So, listen up and here’s the sketch: Bright Eyes is dead, long live The Mystic Valley Band. I mean, no announcement has been made or anything. But that’s the way it would seem. For now, at least. And frankly, it doesn’t actually matter, does it? Really? It’s still Conor Oberst and that’s all that anyone gives a flying hoot about. The story is that he went to Mexico to record a solo album and ‘accidentally’ formed a band (who weren't officially credited on the first record). Careless boy. Oberst is the kind of artist that attracts a legion of scarily stalker-like fans (trust me, I’ve been within spitting distance of a bunch of them) and that’s nothing that the odd line-up change will alter. Only the close friends and relatives of The Mystic Valley Band will truly care about the identities of The Mystic Valley Band. Or, if people do care, they care because Conor cares. So here we have it: a new Conor Oberst album. Except a bunch of other people wrote the songs too.
So, in terms of those songs, Outer South is a little lumpen. In fact, in some parts, it’s so samey, I had to check I hadn’t ticked the ‘play the same track over and over again but with different lyrics’ box on iTunes player (well, they keep updating the software and it’s hard to keep up with the changes, you know?). Structurally, you’ve got a bunch of fairly standard alt.country tracks and it takes a few listens for individual songs to step out from the shadows and identify themselves. Still, it’s deft and lively. You can sense the passion coming from The Mystic Valley Band and the songs quickly escalate, powered by their instrumentation. The album was recorded at the end of a long tour and the bond between the players is palpable.
The real reason we all put a Conor Oberst CD in the player, with slightly sweaty palms, though, let’s face it, is to hear what he’s got to say. In many ways, Outer South feels almost like a coming of age for Oberst. His voice is way stronger than it has been in the past. That faltering waver is long gone and is now replaced by a confident holler; worldly, wise, and more than a little seductive.
And yes. Yes, of course. There are some fantastic lyrics. Of course there are. “Don’t got time for this cuckoo clock / and I don’t wanna go to your mason lodge / There’s nothing more sad than a lynching mob / Full of rational men who believe in God.” If only I could represent, in written form, the gargle of jealousy and awe that rises in my throat when I hear lines like this. But I can’t. So I shall gargle alone.
‘White Shoes’ is the pinnacle of the album, a spike of quality assurance around which the rest of the album spins. From its opening line, drenched in echo, saturated with emotion and decorated with the minutiae of background noise, you just know that this is the time to sit still and listen.
“You can wear your new white shoes / in a muddy afternoon…”
It’s a paean of devotion, a splitting open and a laying bare of heart and soul and interestingly, it’s the barest of the songs on the album, stripped down to just vocals and guitar. It’s a beacon of solitude in an otherwise rousing and boisterous record. RIP Bright Eyes. Long live The Mystic Valley Band. Whoever you are.
8Hayley Avron's Score