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Conor Oberst: When Love Turns Sour

Conor Oberst's album is eponymous — look it up under "Conor Oberst." But its centerpiece has a more provocative title, "I Dont Want to Die (In the Hospital)," that's just right for a 28-year-old who, after six years in the alt-rock spotlight, is hearing maturity's siren call. In my opinion, it's the best song he's ever written in his life, and I'm a fan.

Lyrically, this is a simple ditty keyed to 17 title repetitions, but its emotional complexity is how rock 'n' roll songwriting works. It's simultaneously jaunty, desperate, defiant, helpless, peeved and more. The protagonist could be a guy in his prime with cancer or AIDS, but I'm reminded of my 90-year-old dad begging to be taken home a week before he passed. Right before comes a more typical Oberst opus, "Danny Callahan," a reflection on love and solitude that ends with the death of a child.

Conor Oberst (the person) produced Conor Oberst (the album) pretty much on an impulse while visiting the mystical mountain town of Tepoztlan in Mexico earlier this year. Most of the musicians have no history with the shifting and often elaborate orchestrations of the permanent floating showboat that is Bright Eyes. The approach is straight folk-rock — no horns, no strings, no mandolin or glockenspiel. Thematically, it's less simple than it pretends to be, and not just on the two death songs above. The love songs that predominate, as they usually do with Oberst, are long on social context. One called "Lenders in the Temple" turns on an apt but also somewhat predictable catalog of modern ills. But just as predictably, the love songs have a sweetness to them.

Sweetness — call it lyricism — is Oberst's great gift even when love turns sour. It's why we listen to him. Bright Eyes' style and personnel varies so much from album to album that I hear this record as one more installment in that band's career. And as he makes clear with the many songs about travel on an album that touches down in five named locations, Oberst expects his band to be on the road for a long time.

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Robert Christgau
Robert Christgau contributes regular music reviews to All Things Considered.