Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band: “Outer South”
More than ten years into his career, Conor Oberst is finally getting the nomenclature down. After making several albums as Bright Eyes– which was basically a fancy title for his solo act– and then dropping that moniker to make an album simply billed to Conor Oberst– which was basically a full-band release– he’s finally called one for what it is: Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band share the billing for the first time, and it is exactly what it claims to be: A communal record made by a full-band, but with Oberst clearly in the driver’s seat.
Come to think of it, the album title is fitting, as well; Outer South, in its sixteen-song sweep, conjures images of the rural south, possessing a spirit that’s tied to a certain geography but still exists somewhere on the fringe. It’s an album born of the myths that litter the landscape of American song, fueled by the sounds that Oberst seems to carry in his bloodline; it mines the same country-rock grooves of last year’s Conor Oberst, but broadens its palette to include gravelly-voiced Dylanisms, Basement Tapes hoedowns, folky campfire songs, and languished country ballads.
The album feels like the product of genuine inspiration– not calculation– which explains why it was released so quickly (just a few months after this group’s last outing) and why it possesses such a winding sense of sprawl; Oberst has obviously found his muse in the Mystic Valley Band, so much so that he actually hands off songwriting and lead vocal duties to his bandmates on several tracks, most of which turn out surprisingly well: “Eagle on a Pole” pitches its tent somewhere between Tom Petty and Gram Parsons, “Snake Hill” is convincing (if a bit plodding) hillbilly-gospel, and “Big Black Nothing” is decent country-rock.
As for Oberst, the band pushes him to push himself, but, more importantly, they provide him with an energy and a reparte that he seems to feed off of; his contributions feel as though they were written in a spurt of feverish inspiration. So if his output here is a tough uneven, it nevertheless yields some of his best songs ever. “Roosevelt Room” is the best thing he’s ever done, a furious, hoarse-voiced apocalypse that sounds like it was born at the corner of Highway 61 and Big Pink. Meanwhile, “Ten Women” is an endearing, sing-along folk number that highlights the communal energy and full-band interplay that make the album addicting.
As a lyricist, he’s grown up quite a bit even as he holds on to a few of his bad habits. If “Roosevelt Room” shows that he can synthesize history, imagination, and politics into elegant statements of anger, “To All the Lights in the Windows” highlights what’s best and what’s worst about his writing: While he know longer tries to shoehorn ten-dollars words into every line, and his cadence is much less forced, his animosity toward religious faith and his aspirations to make a Big Statement leads to some muddled metaphors and weird references that amount to little more than aimless sacrilege.
But then, it’s hard to focus on any of the album’s flaws for too long, simply because the album itself never lingers long enough for them to become big issues; this is a dizzyingly energetic and ambitious set that careens through songs and styles with a charmingly ramshackle momentum; the few throwaway songs go by quickly, and the gems are the songs that stand out and leave a lasting impression. What’s most exciting about the album, though, is just how much Oberst has come into his own– a process that’s finally come to fruition now that he’s no longer making music by himself. Ironically enough, sharing the stage with his band is the best thing that ever happened to Oberst; the more he concedes the spotlight, the more his own talents seem to shine.