Change is good, as the man Conor Oberst hopes to see in the White House, Barack Obama, reminds us. As for Oberst himself, he's never been big on staying in one place, either ... geographically or musically.For more than a decade, as the leader of Bright Eyes, he's released a string of albums that have seen him torn and heartbroken over matters personal and political (Fevers and Mirrors, Lifted ...) and discovering New York, like a good young artist, before deciding he'd had enough (I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning). He's dipped a toe into electronics (Digital Ash in a Digital Urn), and last year, country rock (the Four Winds EP), lush strings and even a waltz or two (Cassadaga).
This year, change for Oberst came in the form of a makeshift recording space in a Mexican mountain villa, a patched-together group of musicians — most of whom he'd collaborated with in the past — dubbed the Mystic Valley Band, and a change of label, from longtime home Saddle Creek to Merge. The result is Conor's first solo album in 13 years, one that he is supporting with a tour that brings him and the Mystic Valley crew to the States in the coming weeks.
The new album, due officially August 5 but already leaked, is generally more subdued and certainly more stripped down than Cassadaga, and it wrestles thematically with some of the same ideas that the Bright Eyes record did, including the importance of adventure, exploration, loving life and living it one day at a time. Getting Oberst to talk in depth about the songs, though, was not so easy.
He is the pre-eminent American singer/songwriter of his generation, a guy who, though some may still dispute whether he deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as Guthrie and Dylan, certainly has earned his place alongside Elliott Smith, Jeff Tweedy,Jeff Buckley and, yes, even Bruce Springsteen himself. But when I met up with Conor earlier in the summer and told him we wanted to do a track-by-track commentary on the album, he gave me the sort of look I imagine I would get if I had said, "Mr. Oberst, I'm afraid we'll need to do a root canal." But he gamely suffered through my queries, and what follows are the best bits of our conversation — his thoughts on select tracks from Conor Oberst.
John Norris: There are a lot of tracks that seem to be inspired by one location or another. Can you talk about that one and where it came from?
Conor Oberst: For me, even the songs that don't mention a specific geographical location, in my mind they usually take place somewhere, there's a setting to it. And for whatever reason, it finds its way into the songs a lot. That song is, I guess, more of nostalgia of watching rocket launches on TV, that kind of thing. I've never been to a rocket launch, unfortunately. I'd like to see one though.
Norris: "Sausalito," it's kind of like a driving song to me, a little bit of a road song. Any particular inspiration there?
Oberst: The Grateful Dead? I don't know. Yeah, it's definitely an escapist song. I think it makes a lot of sense, road trip ... [Sausalito] is a very beautiful place. As much as it sounds romantic to live on a boat, I don't think I would like it that much. I'm kind of a solid-ground person.
Norris: I know probably the single word or name that you would do well without ever hearing again is Dylan. But on "Get-Well Cards," there are moments — because of this kind of spoken/sung thing you do there — where he's who comes to mind. Can you talk about that?
Oberst: That's fine with me. He spits fire, Dylan. So I like his music. "Get-Well Cards," that's actually kind of a beach-inspired song. Hanging out at the beach and kind of daydreaming. ... I guess it's kind of about forgiveness. That's the main gist of that one: forgiveness.
"I Don't Want to Die (In the Hospital)"
Oberst: I think it has a sort of comedic aspect to it. The juxtaposition of the music and what's being sung about I suppose. ... I just think of sort of a stubborn old cowboy man that just wants to go lay in the grass and, you know, die out by the tree or something.
"Eagle on a Pole"
Oberst: That song, there's actually a story behind it. We were on the bus one day and a friend of ours that travels with us and works for the band kind of came out from the back of the bus and said that first line: "Saw an eagle on a pole ... I think it was an eagle." And then this guy Simon Joyner, who is a great songwriter from Omaha and one of my great friends, he was on tour with us and sitting there and he was like, "You know, that's a great name for a song." We kind of had a contest where he wrote a song with that first line, and [then] I did, and a couple of our other friends. We kind of all played them for each other. Simon's is better than mine, but it is a good line to start a song.
"NYC — Gone, Gone"
Oberst: I think of it as a pseudo-spiritual song — stomping feet and clapping hands. I like that it's short too. I don't have many short songs, but I like that about it.
Norris: This is no big rift with New York?
Oberst: No. It is the idea of once you're here, it like ... seems like there's a lot of songs about getting here, then once you're here, [there's a] "Where do you go next?" kind of thing.
Oberst: Moab [Arizona] is an amazing town. ... I'd heard about it and then actually I just drove out there by myself on a whim in between things, and it's uh, yeah, it's ... I wanted to check it out. There's, like, this place, Arches National Park, out there, which has the big blown rock arches, and it's really amazing.
"Valle Mistico (Ruben's Song)"
Norris: "Valle Mistico" [where Conor recorded the album] essentially is an instrumental. It's a horn track. Who's playing on that?
Oberst: This guy Ruben, who worked at Valle Mistico. He used to blow this conch, like a seashell horn. So every night ... there was this mountain that was above the place and he would go up there and blow it and he was just ... we became really great friends with him. It was just a sound we were used to hearing. And you can really hear the sound of the night. 'Cause you blow it and it reverberates off the mountainside, and I just ... it's such a pleasant sound, I wanted to capture it.
Oberst: This is a pun, and I don't typically like puns. But it was almost, like, too good to pass up. That's actually the one song that was written start to finish down there. Just kind of jamming. I'm very fond of the drum take in that song, 'cause it was the second time we'd ever played the song and we recorded it. That's always, I think, there's something fresh about it for that reason, because we didn't really know how it went when we recorded it.
Norris: What's the significance of the name "Milk Thistle"?
Oberst: That's a, you know, an herbal supplement you take for liver protection. That's where it comes from. ... It's, like, to promote liver health.
Norris: [The lyric] "If I go to heaven, I'll be bored as hell," is that sort of an ongoing thing of, like, not worrying about what happens next?
Oberst: Yeah, I guess the logical problem with the idea of heaven [is that] you can't really have infinite eternal goodness, 'cause you wouldn't understand it.
Norris: Well, the concepts of heaven and hell, aren't they just a way to keep us all behaving?
Oberst: I guess it depends on who you talk to.