Going solo

Artist: Conor Oberst
Album: Conor Oberst
Release date: August 4
Label: Merge

Gather round, it's story time.

Flash back to March, 2005. It was a rainy day. It was the day I would say goodbye to my dying great-grandmother at the hospital.

I had time to kill before I met my mother at the hospital, so I went to a local record store called The Gallery of Sound. I was browsing through the CDs and saw Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. I had heard good things, so I bought the album and went to the hospital for one of the hardest two hours of my life.

When I got back in my car to drive home in the pouring rain, my windshield wet with my eyes, I put the album in and there, in Conor Oberst's music, found warm comfort.

Death will bring us back to God
Just like the setting sun.

Those lyrics, from the first song -- "At the Bottom of Everything" -- pierced through me and brought a sense of closure to the situation I had just endured.

I tell this story now because there is no way any album released by Conor Oberst -- under the Bright Eyes moniker or not -- could ever live up to Wide Awake for me. I have too much invested in that album, too many emotions and too many memories for anything to ever surpass it.

That aside, Conor Oberst is a near-perfect album. The songs we get here from Mr. Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band are simple, elegant, emotional, personal, beautiful, haunting and memorable. We get an introspective Oberst on this album, with soul-searching we haven't heard since at least Wide Awake, maybe not since Lifted.

It all starts with the acoustic "Cape Canaveral," a catchy tune with a heartbeat that is brilliant in its simplicity. With the first lines we know this album will be about Oberst looking for deeper meaning in everything -- life, politics, death.

Oh, oh, oh, brother totem pole

I saw your legends lined up
And I never felt more natural
Apart, I just came apart.

It's songs like this where Oberst really shines. It's just him, a guitar and his take on the world, his thoughts, his feelings, his emotions. And it's a treat. And it comes full-circle on the album's closer, "Milk Thistle."

I'm not scared of nothing

And I'll go pound-for-pound.
I keep death on my head
Like a heavy crown.

And in between we get Oberst, who has battled comparisons to Bob Dylan since he started recording music more than a decade ago, at his most Dylan-esque. He and the Mysic Valley Band get all folksy on "Sausalito," "Souled Out!!!" and "I Don't Want To Die (In the Hospital)."

But the best song on the album, "Moab," meets somewhere in the middle. It's a ballad with a folk twang, a thumping piano and an important life lesson: "There's nothing that the road cannot heal," Oberst croons. But it's also a heart-breaking song, about going back home again when everything goes south:

They say the sun won't burn forever

But that's a science too exact.
I can prove it -- watch, we're crossing the state line.
See those headlights coming towards us?
That's someone going back
To a town they said they'd never, yeah,
They swore it all their lives.

I think those Dylan comparisons are finally valid. Oberst was set free with this record. He was able to take it wherever he wanted. And what we got is a masterpiece.

Score: 9.5/10
Stand-out tracks: Cape Canaveral, Danny Callahan, Moab


Track of the week:
Grizzly Bear - Two Weeks (Live on David Letterman)

Those indie darlings Grizzly Bear have been hard-at-work on their full-length follow-up to 2006's behemoth Yellow House. They chose Late Night with David Letterman Wednesday night to debut one of their new tracks, "Two Weeks."

It's a poppy, bright, sunny track with a pulsating piano that sounds like "Hard-Knock Life." This sounds really good for such a new track. Needless to say, I'm waiting for the next Grizzly LP with a newfound sense of excitement after hearing this.

Stereogum's got the ripped MP3 of the performance here.

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