On his 2008 self-titled “solo” album, Bright Eyes mastermind Conor Oberst (and a ragtag band of wandering indie-folk minstrels) sought out south-of-the-border trails less traveled. A mere nine months later, the collective has returned, to traverse upon native soil—yet moves even further off the grid in the process.
Hushed and yearning as ever, Oberst’s vocals anchor only nine of the 16 rustic tracks. It’s an interesting touch, allowing three of his bandmates to sing lead on their own compositions, yet the results are uneven and a bit jarring; there’s a palpable current of defiant blitheness running throughout. The less-polished melodies and broader writing—relative to the earlier period—are particularly telling, and though not quite jam-session throwaways, tracks like the ruminative “Eagle on a Pole” (an image first dissected on Oberst) seem scattershot and disjointed. The cutesy, synthy “Air Mattress” even forges an improbable sonic connection between the outskirts of El Paso and Fountains of Wayne’s Northeastern blue-collar power-pop.
Tack on touches of Ryan Adams’ dust-streaked indefatigability and the upbeat transience of Tom Petty, and Oberst himself becomes lost in the mix. For alt-country’s onetime wunderkind troubadour, it’s not a respite for the better.