Conor Oberst, best known as the lead singer and mastermind of the indie outfit Bright Eyes, is nothing if not unpredictable. At times, Oberst is dazzlingly wise beyond his years, dispensing nuggets of hard-won wisdom like an indie-rock prophet. At other times, like on the absurd opening lyrics to new song "Souled Out!!!" ("The barrio starts two streets over/ Miguel he's a friend of mine"), Oberst accidentally reminds us of his youth.
With Oberst, there is little filter; the gems and the rubbish all emerge from the same place. Oberst's talent and his unevenness are all of a kind.
Oberst's self-titled album, out today, is his first solo record since 1995's "Soundtrack to My Movie" (recorded when he was 15). It's the product of a road trip taken earlier this year to Mexico with the Mystic Valley Band. The lyrics of "NYC-Gone, Gone" provide an autobiographical gloss on their Mexican vacation, with Oberst wondering "where you gonna go with a heart that low?," and finally determining that there's "nothing that the road cannot heal."
Judging from the occasional Southern drawl Oberst employs here, rendering "outside" as "out-SAHD," one ventures that he aimed for Georgia as a musical base and wound up about 1,000 miles too far south. The presence of twin odes to mortality, "Danny Callahan" and "I Don't Want to Die (in a Hospital)," at the dead center of the album also suggests a fixation with death and loss that may have prompted Oberst's exodus.
"Danny Callahan" begins from the outside, declaring that "even Western medicine couldn't save Danny Callahan," before jumping to a first-person perspective for the second song, where a raucous rockabilly beat underpins the narrator's demand that "I don't want to die in a hospital/ You gotta take me back outside." The album reaches its peak with "Eagle on a Pole," which begins as a gentle folk strum before stepping out as a brisk military march with curling piano figures as accompaniment.
The somber tone of much of "Conor Oberst" notwithstanding, Oberst is still the kind of singer who shouts "¡Claro que sí!" before the chorus on "Moab," presumably as a tribute to his adopted home base. Viva Mexico! And those opening lines to "Souled Out!!!"? The first time I heard it, I laughed at Oberst's embrace of weirdly dated terminology and "I'm-a-white-guy-who-knows-minorities" shtick. By the fourth spin, I was singing along. Go figure.