Oberst has the tendency to be heavy-handed with metaphor and with language in general, often reading like a hipper, more literate version of a 16-year-old's poetry journal. His newest effort, recorded in a rural Mexican locale dubbed Valle Místico, doesn't shy away from that kind of grating poetic license. Here, though, his words are absorbed by the music, so at least they become a simple piece of the larger whole.
Instrumentally, Conor Oberst shares a similar stripped-down, cosmic American music feel with Bright Eyes' I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. This time, though, Oberst is firmly in his own skin rather than trying someone else's on for size. "Cape Canaveral" opens the album with a tribal beat softly thumped out against the side of an acoustic guitar, with Oberst's vocal reverie and simply strummed melody providing counterpoint. "Sausalito" feels like the rockier end of the early No Depression genre spectrum, with Oberst's vocals mirroring Jeff Tweedy on the Anodyne-esque "Danny Callahan."
Though these stabs at comfortably shambling country-rock and freak-folk are welcome refinements to Oberst's signature sound, the brief incursion (72 seconds) of "NYC-Gone, Gone" provides the album's highlight. With a stompingly rudimentary back-beat and a melody as redolent of Ireland as of the American South, Oberst captures wanderlust perfectly in the simple lines, "Gone, gone from New York City/Where you gonna go with a heart that empty?" Down to Mexico, the answer comes. In Valle Místico, Conor Oberst has found brevity. Let's hope it sticks around. Nicholas Hall