Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: “Outer South” (2009)

(Merge Records)

“Potential, well you’re a loaded line…”

Ever since he was the 13 year old “wunderkid” whom everyone likened to new Bob Dylan, Conor Oberst has had a lot to live up to.  Oberst released record after record that intrigued critics and fans alike during his tenure as the ring leader of the “band” Bright Eyes (who was really just himself and anyone else with an instrument in the room).  Everyone kept expecting him to put something to vinyl or digital bits that would forever change the musical landscape, something that would cause time to be split into that before and that after.  His own Highway 61 Revisited or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

“…Oh potential, well you’re a loaded line.”

After his seventh full length release under the “Bright Eyes” moniker, Oberst decided to leave it for a while and go back to releasing records under his own name.  Immediately after recording the first one he formed The Mystic Valley Band and went on tour.  A year later they went straight from the stage to the studio to record the second record, this time attributed to “Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band”, entitled Outer South.

The record starts of with the country tinged rock song “Slowly (Oh So Slowly)” reminiscent of the style Conor Oberst has been working with since his last Bright Eyes record, Cassadaga.  The first line he sings is “Potential, well you’re a loaded line.”  Right off the bat Oberst acknowledges the hype and expectations that have been placed upon him.  He knows everyone expects him to come out and write the “next big thing” but he has decided to relax and be comfortable.  That is the feeling that seems to run through the course of the record, comfort.  Conor Oberst is comfortable in his writing and is even comfortable enough to let the other band members write and sing their own songs.  “Slowly (Oh So Slowly)” narrates an almost sedentary individual just waiting for tomorrow, aware that he probably should be going and doing something but for now he’ll stay.

Oberst’s previous record spoke more about escaping and running away to anywhere but here.  Now he appears more content to stay still just for a while.  In “Nikorette” he sings about “just trying to stay a human being/Sitting in the sun eating ice cream.”  The music in this, and much of the others, holds a little too similar and repetitive to hold attention for too long.  In the 2002 Bright Eyes record, Lifted: or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Oberst bookended the epic story with an eight minute and an eleven minutes (although both contained about two minutes of noise) that were far were more engaging than much here.

The other band members do have their moments but one can’t help but get the feeling that they are there only because Oberst decided to let them play their songs to keep the feeling of a “band.”  Nik Freitas’ “Big Black Nothing” is the first non-Oberst song on the record and makes the listener hopeful of what there is to come from the other members, something that doesn’t quite materialize.  Taylor Hollingsworth is given the next song with “Air Mattress” that is actually quite interesting with its synth-laden 50s rock song about spending a night on an air mattress with your beloved and hoping it deflates enough to bring the both of you together during the night.  Cute, fun, quite out of place with the rest of the songs but about it for the non-Oberst songs.

Outer South is not really a bad record.  Conor Oberst can still write more captivating narratives than most of what is found on the radio dial or American Idol.  In “Roosevelt Room” he is able to write a song that would fit perfectly in an anti-Vietnam concert and about the loudest song and one of the better on the record.  However, it still all feels a little too comfortable and safe compared to what everyone kept saying his “potential” was.

Back in 2002 Conor Oberst sang “I do not read the reviews/No, I am not singing for you,”  a line that at the time was very defiant and great to this listener (and fan).  So he might not care what I have to say about a work that for sure was anything but easy for him to create.  But, alas, that is the fate of us who choose to express our opinion to others.

6 out of 10

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