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Conor Oberst: When Love Turns Sour
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Conor Oberst: When Love Turns Sour


There's a new CD out this week by one of the decade's most acclaimed young songwriters. Conor Oberst is the leader of the Omaha-based group Bright Eyes. But this is a solo album, his first since high school.

Our critic Robert Christgau says it's more of the same from Oberst, and that's a good thing.

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Oberst's album is eponymous. Look it up under Conor Oberst. But its centerpiece has a more provocative title, "I Don't Want To Die (In The Hospital)" - 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 ever wrote in his life, and I'm a fan.

(Soundbite of song, "I Don't Want To Die (In The Hospital)")

Mr. CONOR OBERST (Lead Singer, Bright Eyes): (Singing) No, I don't wanna die in the hospital. I don't wanna die in the hospital. You gotta take me back outside. I don't wanna hear all these factory sounds, looking like a girl in the sleeping gown. I don't wanna die in the hospital. You gotta take me back outside.

Can you make a sound to distract the nurse before I take a ride in that long, black hearse. I don't wanna die in the hospital. You gotta take me back outside.

Oh, help me get my boots on. Help me get my boots on. Help me get my boots back on.

CHRISTGAU: Lyrically, this is a simple ditty keyed to 17 title repetitions, but its emotional complexity is how rock 'n' roll songwriting works. It's jaunty, desperate, defiant, helpless, PO-ed and more - simultaneously. 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.

(Soundbite of song, "I Don't Want To Die (In The Hospital)")

Mr. OBERST: (Singing) Can you get this tube out of my arm, morphine in my blood like a slow, sad song? I don't wanna die in the hospital. You gotta take me back outside.

Right before comes a more typical Oberst opus, a reflection on love and solitude that ends with the death of a child.

(Soundbite of song, "Danny Callahan")

Mr. OBERST: (Singing) But even Western medicine, it couldn't save Danny Callahan. Bad bone marrow, a bald little boy. But the love he feels he carries inside can be passed. He lays still, his mother kissed him goodbye, said come back. Where are you going to alone? Where are you going all alone?

CHRISTGAU: 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, and not just on the two death songs I played. The love songs that predominate, as with Oberst they usually do, 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.

(Soundbite of song, "Where Pilgrims Disappear")

Mr. OBERST: (Singing) I smell the leather of your new car, drive through the desert after nightfall. Sleep on the shoulder, keep the stars all to ourselves. The kind of love that makes my back hurt, wearing nothing but a T-shirt. She's turning over on a mattress made of air.

CHRISTGAU: Sweetness - call it lyricism - is Conor Oberst's great gift even when love turns sour. It's why we listen to him, a constant. Bright Eyes' style and personnel vary so much 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.

(Soundbite of song, "There's Nothing That The Road Cannot Heal")

Mr. OBERST: (Singing) There's nothing that the road cannot heal. There's nothing that the road cannot heal. Washed under the blacktop, gone beneath my wheels, there's nothing that the road cannot heal.

BLOCK: Robert Christgau writes the Consumer Guide to CDs at You can hear more of Conor Oberst's new album at the music section of

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