Usually Conor Oberst's lyrics elicit something of a collective groan from the apparently small but steadfast contingent of music listeners who just can't swallow the Bob Dylan comparisons. Oberst certainly has the tendency to be heavy-handed with metaphor, and with language in general, often reading like a hipper, more literate version of a 16-year-old girl's poetry journal. Well, his newest effort, oddly billed as his "first solo record in 13 years," doesn't really shy away from that kind of grating poetic license, but the words are somehow absorbed by the music so that they become a simple piece of the larger whole.
This time around, Oberst seems like he's firmly in his own skin, rather than trying someone else's on for size. "Cape Canaveral" opens the album with a tribal beat, softly thumped out against the side of an acoustic guitar, with Oberst's vocal reverie and simply strummed melody providing counterpoint. Oberst's vocals even mirror Jeff Tweedy's on the Anodyne-esque "Danny Callahan."
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Though these stabs at comfortably shambling country-rock and shambolic freak-folk are welcome refinements to what seems to be emerging as a signature sound, the brief incursion of "NYC-Gone, Gone" provides the album's highlight. With a stompingly rudimentary backbeat and a melody as redolent of Ireland as of the American South, the song captures wanderlust perfectly in the simple lines: "Gone, gone from New York City/Where you gonna go with a heart that empty?" Down to Mexico, the answer comes. Brevity, it seems, found Conor Oberst in Valle Místico. Let's hope it sticks around.