How is a Conor Oberst solo album different from a Bright Eyes album?
Well, to begin with, there he is, right on the cover of his self-titled CD. That's a change. For more than a decade, Oberst has released Bright Eyes albums distinguished not only by great music but by beautiful artwork (see: Fevers and Mirrors, Lifted ..., Cassadaga) that bears no trace of the face of the musician himself. So it is momentarily jarring to see Oberst sacked out in a black-and-white photo, having what appears to be a post-nookie siesta in a hammock, while a rail-thin señorita sits by the fire behind him.
But apart from a CD cover, what's the difference between Bright Eyes and Oberst "solo"?
"I guess the main difference is that [multi-instrumentalist and producer] Mike Mogis didn't play on this record, and I didn't feel right calling it Bright Eyes without him playing on it," explained the artist, who over the years has also recorded with other bands including Desaparecidos, Commander Venus and Park Ave. But not in 13 years, since The Soundtrack to My Movie, has Oberst released a solo album.
Never mind that many have long perceived Bright Eyes to be creatively, in essence, a solo project — no more a "band" than, say, Beirut, Badly Drawn Boy or M83. Conor is quick to point that out as a misperception. "Bright Eyes is me and Mike and Nate [Walcott]. The idea of it being a solo project comes from a bio that was written after the first record in 1998 that, because of laziness, we never corrected. But, I mean, pretty much since Lifted ... time, which was, like, 2002, it's more or less been the three of us on virtually every tour and definitely every recording. In my mind, it turned into a band along the way."
That band's numbers swelled last year with the lush strings and backing girls of Cassadaga and its accompanying tour, on which the large onstage posse was decked head-to-toe in white. But once that ran its course, the ever-restless Oberst, who admittedly tends to do things in reaction to what came before, stripped things down, did a string of fall dates with a more back-to-basics rock lineup, and set to work on a batch of songs that he knew he did not want to record in a traditional studio.
"I was looking at places in the States, but then some friends that live in Cuernavaca, Mexico, found this, basically, little hotel with four little houses — kind of a villa setup."
It was called Valle Mistico — Mystic Valley — and so, the group of musicians with whom Conor decamped south of the border, including Andy LeMaster, Nik Freitas, Taylor Hollingsworth, Macey Taylor, Jason Boesel and Bright Eyes' Walcott, became known as the Mystic Valley Band.
"We couldn't have asked for a more relaxing environment to work in," Oberst told me when I met up with him in a Mexican restaurant (I am a master of the obvious) in New York. "It was beautiful every day, and we were outside of this little town called Tepoztlán, more up in the mountains."
Now that hammock starts to make sense. And that relaxed vibe of the recording process translates to the music on the album as well. It's quieter and more spare than his last release, at times even somber. There's "Eagle on a Pole," a pretty reflection on relationships and fidelity; the easy rocking standout "Danny Callahan," an ode to a sick little boy; and "NYC — Gone Gone," a just-over-a-minute Slade-like stomper that's a testament to Conor's desire to get outta town and head down Mexico way.
As much as anything, wanderlust seems to be the theme that continues on from Cassadaga. Where that record found Conor crossing the country, ending up — and hooking up — here and there, the new album sticks with that nomadic approach, with songs that take our hero from Utah ("Moab") to Florida ("Cape Canaveral") to California (the Deadhead-friendly "Sausalito"). The troubadour from smack-dab in the middle of the nation has never much cared for staying in one place.
"I honestly don't like being somewhere for more than a month or two," he said. "It's just ... I'm ready to go. For some reason whenever I go some place new, get a change of scenery, there's always a lot of optimism, and just that idea of turning over a new leaf."
While he has places in both Omaha and New York, he said neither one really constitutes "home," and roommates take care of the houses for him. Nor does being perpetually on the move make for ideal relationships: "I've been taking it a little easier on that front. I had a sort of off-and-on girlfriend for a long time," he said. In fact, it lasted six years but ended last summer: "It never really worked because of my lifestyle."
Another relationship that Conor has not so much terminated as taken leave from is his long-standing affiliation with O-town's Saddle Creek, releasing the new record on another indie stalwart, Merge — home to, among others, M. Ward, Wye Oak, She & Him and Spoon. Conor chalks that decision up to "stirring up the pot, trying something new," but he said not to make too much of it.
"I've done so many records with Saddle Creek, and obviously they're my great fans — there was no falling out or anything. I think I'll certainly work with them again."
But as with most things in his life, Oberst will cross that bridge when it appears on the horizon of the convertible that he's (literally or figuratively) driving from place to place, and he will likely try to keep living in the moment. That carpe diem spirit crept up time and again on his last album, and it's echoed on the new record's closer, "Milk Thistle." So why live so resolutely in the here and now?
"Well, that's all we have really. You can think back and you can try and peek into the future or what your idea of the future is, but this is all we have, you know? It's a gift. That's why it's called the 'present.' "
Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band have begun a world tour that arrives in North America July 25, and the album will be in stores August 5. Visit Rhapsody.com for more information.