Conor Oberst has an ego-issue. He has had it throughout his career. In the early days of Bright Eyes, he doubted himself and sang about it openly. On 2003’s masterpiece “LIFTED: Or The Story Is In the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground,” he claimed “I do not read the reviews.” And now, as he re-imagines himself as a band leader and not a singer-songwriter or solo artist, he’s attempting to push that ego far away. He feels guilty about it- that’s my theory.

And that’s why Oberst is embracing this whole multiple songwriter thing.

Oberst also didn’t do any press for “Outer South”- deferring interviews to his band mates, thus saying, “it’s not about me, it’s about the band.”

Many reviews (see best example here) of “Outer South” have been overly harsh, I think. Critics are expecting the output of this album, made by a band and several songwriters, to be like the output of a Bright Eyes or Conor Oberst solo album. But here’s the thing- they can’t expect that. Comparing this album to Oberst’s past-work is unfair to him and to his band.

That said, there are some weaker songs on “Outer South” as there are on most albums. Can you think of any album that features ALL amazing tracks? There aren’t many, especially not these days. It’s true: the weaker songs on “Outer South” are non-Oberst songs. Contributions from Taylor Hollingsworth (“Air Mattress”) and Nik Freitas (“Bloodline”) are inferior to other songs on the album but those two also contribute another song each, which are great. And let’s not forget that they contribute a lot to how a song sounds, regardless of whether or not they “wrote” it. We should judge the band and the album on its own, not in comparison to how this would have sounded were it just an Oberst project.

The whole album is like an active romp in a sunny field. The bright and clean sound is right for a picnic soundtrack- it’s a barrel of fun.

Some tracks, like drummer Jason Boesel’s great “Difference Is Time” and “Eagle on a Pole,” are more down-beat. “Difference” features Nate Wolcott on organ, and Boesel’s baritone vocals give this an almost gospel-tinged Sunday hymn feel. Others, like Oberst’s “To All the Lights in the Windows” are typical alt-country anthems.

“Big Black Nothing,” which has a white slash-mark covering the album track title on the LP liner notes, is the great Nik Freitas song mentioned above. Its sound is reminiscent of Time Out of Mind-era-Bob Dylan and features hand claps, a great piano line in the middle of the song and a spooky feel.

Ever-present in Oberst tunes are the pesky themes that he’ll never shed- nor does he want to. Drugs (“Cabbage Town”), politics (“Roosevelt Room”), religion. They’re all here, and Oberst is a word-man. He makes anything poetic.

The most remarkable song on the album, perhaps, is also the starkest. “White Shoes” is Oberst alone- just his voice and his hands on a guitar, which is, in many ways and ironically, the way he is most comfortable. The song’s lyrics are about a man, Oberst, taking on another person’s weight- also a subject familiar to him.

“I will swing upon your moods anytime you want me to. Anything you want to do. Anything you want to do.”

The echo-ey acoustic guitar strumming and tapping, mixed with Oberst’s vocals make this song the heart of the album. It feels like a beating heart.

This is a step in a new direction for Oberst. You can feel it in the songs, and you can especially see it in the documentary made about the band, “One of My Kind. For Oberst all of this is a huge relief. On the inside of the album there is a prominently displayed Walt Whitman quote:

“I have learned that to be with those I like is enough.”


Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: “White Shoes”

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: “Difference Is Time”

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: “Big Black Nothing”

Click the above links.

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: “White Shoes”

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: “Difference Is Time”

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: “Big Black Nothing”