In “If the Brakeman Turns My Way,” Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst muses, “I tried to pass for nothin’ but my dreams gave me away.” It’s a classic sort of Bright Eyes line and, as expected, Oberst sings it with impressively measured sincerity. But as if to prove a point about lofty visions gone awry, the song’s tone switches from bard-like simplicity to overpowering orchestral crescendos and rapid-fire drums, drowning the last of his words.
In all, Cassadaga employs 34 musicians and conductors. Backup vocals echo Oberst’s most poignant lines in ethereal whispers as if to drive home the point. Pedal steel predictably punctuates the most heartbreaking turns. And almost no space goes unfilled in the chorus of percussion, piano and classical strings.
It’s not a bad album, though. Oberst is so adept with hooks and lyrics that at least some ribbon of brilliance can be gathered from any song. But the fracture between songs like “I Must Belong Somewhere,” which reveals honed, intimate storytelling, and political ditties like “Four Winds,” which points with hollow conviction at “the whores of Babylon” is of gaping contrast. Oberst shines most when he doesn’t bloat his songs with overproduced instrumentals, when his keen-edged vocals cut through dustier timbre. (Erika Fredrickson)
Bright Eyes plays the University Theatre Sunday, Oct. 28, at 8 PM. $26.50 plus fees.