2005 was a productive year for Connor Oberst, frontman for the band Bright Eyes. He simultaneously released Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. After taking a year off from recording Bright Eyes returns with Cassadaga, a sophisticated and opulently produced release that highlights Oberst's writing but also underscores the contributions of Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, the other permanent members of the band.
Multi-instrumentalist, Mogis, acts as producer and in that capacity adds a flare not heard before on a Bright Eyes release. At the core of the record is that country-tinged Americana that brought Bright Eyes their initial critical acclaim. New to the production is the string and horn sections and backing girl vocals that one might associate with a Sufjan Stevens' production.
Recorded for the first time outside of Mogis' Lincoln, Nebraska studios, the band traveled to Portland, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles to record these songs. This fits well with the theme of the release which focuses on a variety of American landscapes and the spirit that inhabits these places - sometimes literally. Cassadaga is a spiritualist camp in Florida and finds reference in the song "Four Winds."
Perhaps the most defining sound of Bright Eyes is Oberst's voice, a high, reedy warble that often sounds like it is ready to break or disappear completely. And yet it is his vocals that propel the emotion in Cassadaga. Part of this band's maturity is in it's ability to effectively present Oberst's vocals within the context of Mogis' production and Walcott's arrangements. Elaborate string swirl around and enhance Oberst's vulnerable moments. Backing girl vocals back him up on some of the discs more upbeat moments.
The band is joined by a remarkable line-up of guest members including Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, M. Ward, Ben Kweller, Rachael Yamagata and, ex-Sleater Kinney drummer, Janet Weiss.
All this said, at the heart of Cassadaga is Oberst's thoughtful, mature songwriting. Whether he is singing about an affair with an older woman, genocide in American history or the longing of a lost spirit, it's impossible not to identify on an emotional level and to admire his cultural references and clever turns of phrase.