Initially touted as "teenage prodigy" Oberst has had some difficulty shaking off that tag, still less than he'll have shaking off his reputation as the man behind Bright Eyes. With ten albums released under that moniker since its beginnings in 1998, this rare solo album is his first since Kill the Monster Before It Eats Baby (1996), differentiated from band albums by of the absence of Mike Mogis, one of only two permanent members of the Bright Eyes line-up alongside Nate Walcott. Despite new backing from The Mystic Valley Band, the conceptualisation of the self-titled Conor Oberst as a solo album means that there is a bareness and simplicity to the record, a return to basics if you like, possibly even more so than 2005's successful I'm Wide Awake It's Morning.
2007's Cassadaga marked something of a turning point for Oberst, one which continues here and which sees him more optimistic in mood and tone, though many lyrics still resonate with tragedy and cynicism. Country and bluegrass influences have become increasingly prominent album by album and here are unquestionably to the fore, albeit in a more stripped-back fashion. Themes of death, God and loneliness are recurrent as ever, raising questions about the meaning and nature of all things, though Oberst has learned to incorporate his sense of humour. Where once he resorted to self-aware spoken passages to acknowledge and offset the edge of despair in his music, here he can be blatantly mocking and even droll (I Don't Want to Die in the Hospital). Thankfully, his trademark bitterness can still be found on numbers like Lenders in the Temple, one of several tracks teeming with religious imagery.
The return to basics here means that Oberst's flair for experimentation is muted, leaving the album feeling just a little too safe. Almost half an hour of unremitting, mostly acoustic, easy listening means that by the time NYC - Gone, Gone's 1min12 of campfire style chant and mirroring crude electric guitar comes around it makes for a much welcome if all too short respite. Though 50 second horn track Valle Místico (Ruben's Song) is almost as annoying as it is pointless (one can only assume it makes some reference to Native Americans, as does the first line of the album), it makes a nice reminder that Oberst has not completely forgotten how to challenge his listener. Comparisons aside, Conor Oberst is an accomplished, pleasant and thought-provoking album in its own right.