Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Bright Eyes :: Cassadaga, or Turning from a Cartoon Back into a Man.

Bright Eyes :: Cassadaga ~ Saddle Creek ~ Omaha, NE ~ April 10th, 2007

To commemorate the release of The People’s Key, the first Bright Eyes record in four years (and most likely the last for a while), it seemed appropriate to look back at the last chapter, Cassadaga. The mix attached to this article is an interpretation, a juxtaposition, a blasphemy, and an alternate psychic dimensional version of the album that combines it with b-sides and tracks from the album’s Four Winds EP. The alternate name comes from a lyric in “Cartoon Blues,” and thus is presented Cassadaga or Turning from a Cartoon Back into a Man.

When the cartoon is drawn together, a new story emerges about underground fame and the conflicted relationship one has with the concept of home, as well as a tale of emotional fidelity. It’s about Cleansing or purging to find contentment or acceptance or redemption. Of course, these synonyms barely scratch the surface of some of the deep, indescribable abstractions present on every Bright Eyes record that makes multiple listens not just discoveries or explorations, but expeditions.

Turning from a Cartoon Back into a Man
1. Clairaudients (Kill or be Killed)
2. If the Brakeman Turns My Way
3. Cartoon Blues
4. Tourist Trap
5. Four Winds
6. Cleanse Song
7. Endless Entertainment 
8. Middleman
9. Susan Miller Rag
10. Coat Check Dream Song
11. Soul Singer in a Session Band
12. Stray Dog Freedom
13. Hot Knives
14. Lime Tree
15. I Must Belong Somewhere

Released in 2007, Cassadaga showed Oberst's lyrical talents evolving to include strongly evocative imagery. The sound was  bursts of soulful Americana that branched out into diverse territory with string accompaniments and other instrumentation courtesy of Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. The spectral decoder included in the packaging that revealed hidden messages all over the album suited it perfectly and even won a Grammy. 

However, the album was markedly different than any previous Bright Eyes record. Each album has a similar story arc or skeleton formed by the song order. Experimentation is always an expectation for Bright Eyes releases, although on Cassadaga the story seemed incomplete, its pieces shuffled.

The record’s confusion came from Oberst feeling restricted by the stylistic obligations of Bright Eyes. It’s an influence that overshadows every one of his releases from Cassadaga onwards. When he started playing with The Mystic Valley Band, he said something to the effect that you can only write so many songs about being lost. Certain Cassadaga tracks foreshadowed his departure from Bright Eyes with an inclination towards simpler, vaguer pop songs or sing-a-longs. The record’s drawbacks are that it sacrifices some meaning and thematic cohesion due to its musical indecision. Torn between wanting to stay true to the spirit of Bright Eyes and wanting to exonerate itself from the shackles of sorrow.

Sonically, the main goal of the album is the latter with a few references to other Bright Eyes lyrics (and even a new hair cut) to support it. Oberst always takes the time to revisit, update and criticize his own ideas. From “Soul Singer in a Session Band,” the line “Sorrow is pleasure when you want it instead” reflects “The sound of loneliness makes me happier” on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’s “Poison Oak” and “The pleasure that my sadness brings” from Fevers & Mirrors’ “Haligh, Haligh, a Lie, Haligh.” However, in contrast to existential or romantic entrapment respectively, “Soul Singer” presents an artistic dilemma. In an interview with NME magazine, Oberst said the song was about “anyone that’s confined by their situation that could perhaps be something greater or more fully realized.” The metafiction pops up in other spots on the album as well. “Cleanse Song” ends with “Hear the charms? Did you know that the wind when it blows it is older than Rome and our joy and our sorrow.”

It’s an idea that is well summed up in the b-side “Susan Miller Rag.” Its advice is to “relax you’re grieving,” “relax you’re law,” “relax your cause” and “groove.” The song is deeply connected to the album, as two of its lyrics are messages revealed by the spectral decoder. One is written in French and translates to “Is it midnight or high noon?” Playing with Oberst’s love of opposites, like “from the deep sea dive to the nosebleed altitudes.” The other is “Mighty Saturn enters your eighth house.” It’s a direct reference to a part of astrology that embodies a lot of Oberst’s themes. The eighth house is a “sphere of life” that involves sex, money, debts, loss, signifies drastic change, and most importantly: it juxtaposes death and rebirth. Internet research on Susan Miller doesn’t turn up a lot of information, but one Susan Miller does happen to be an astrologist.

There are a lot of mystical allusions on the album, although Oberst denies any underlying psychic themes. A clairaudient is like a clairvoyant, except instead of visions it has to do with hearing. There’s an inclination towards new age medicine and spirituality, including the small town in Florida that the album is named after. Oberst described it as “surrounded by swampland that pulses with a gothic, Savannah-type vibe, but with white trash magic.” The name comes from the Seneca language and means “rocks beneath the water,” which is another secret message that appears on the album sleeve.

In an interview with the online magazine Lazy-I, Oberst said, "I really wanted to go there. I built it up in my mind. I thought I could find something I was looking for.” The town is populated by spiritual advisors, psychics, and mediums. Oberst explained “There's a chalkboard out front that lists the people who are working that day. You make an appointment and go to their homes. Most of them have converted their front rooms into reading parlors.” These people are perhaps the voices on the audio recording portions of “Clairaudients.” However, they aren’t you’re typical telethon psychics. Oberst continued, “It’s a practice that's been going on for thousands of years…I was attracted to the authenticity of the minds of all these people together.” Although, Oberst didn’t quite seem to find exactly what he was looking for. "In a way, I did," he said. "It's a personal thing that's hard to articulate. I left there feeling a little more that I was on the right path, working in conjunction with the universe and against the grain." Perhaps Oberst’s reaction to the place is a good metaphor for the album. The same goes for the repeated mysticism on the album; it’s not a theme, but a metaphor.

The song “Susan Miller Rag” came as a bonus three inch CD for online orders from 
Saddle Creek, to be included as a part of the album at least in some way. There are three other additions to the mix. "Cartoon Blues" and "Tourist Trap" are songs that were exiled to the Four Winds EP, although they were important enough for Bright Eyes to support with its own tour. Another song from that release is “Stray Dog Freedom.” It elaborates the the mysterious concept that was briefly mentioned in Digital Ash in a Digital Urn’s "Gold Mine Gutted," with the line, "Well, all these claims at consciousness, my stray dog freedom. Let's have a nice clean cut. Like a bag we buy and divy up." The song straightforwardly tells the story of a homeless dog that runs away whenever someone tries to tame it. It's the same kind of master-less liberation as on "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" and for that reason it's a nice bookend. The last addition was an internet only track called “Endless Entertainment.”

In the wake of the success of the previous Bright Eyes albums, I'm Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Oberst was dealing with popularity more than ever. His songwriting and commentary on the government and society got the finger of God laid upon him in the form of Bob Dylan comparisons. In “Clairaudients,” he pokes fun at it saying “Would you agree times have changed?” It’s followed by another Dylan scene, that of hobo wanderings in "If the Brakeman Turns My Way" where fate is determined by whichever way the brakeman switches the cars. He sings, "I tried to pass for nothing, but my dreams gave me away," in contrast to "I found out that I am really no one" on I'm Wide Awake's "At the Bottom of Everything." 

"Cartoon Blues" introduces new antagonists. The "plagiary poet with dark glasses on" confronts Oberst about how he came up with the idea for "the one where the baby dies." The reference is to the early Bright Eyes song "Padriac, My Prince" from Letting off the Happiness. Oberst is so uncomfortable with the amount of attention he's getting at this party scene that he has to "ask like a child, 'May I be excused?'" Oberst's love in "Endless Entertainment" sweetly tells him "You don't have to be no one's biography. They'll try to write you down and hope you go crazy." In "Tourist Trap," he sings "The way these strangers stand so close. They say my name like a guessing game, 'Hey, is that really you?' No, I don’t think it ever was." The song also reintroduces the emotion of not feeling at home in your home. It’s something Oberst has written about before in songs like I’m Wide Awake’s “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now.” He sings, “I’m not sure if I live here anymore.” It becomes even more complicated when abortion is a part of the equation, a puzzle piece uncovered in "Lime Tree."

As overtly expressed in "Endless Entertainment," the album is littered with references to
 the apocalypse. Most notably is "Four Winds," in which Oberst uses several cleverly placed allusions to the Bible's book of revelations in order to create a severe and subtle political commentary on a particular nation's global conflicts that might bring about the end of days. The lovely nickname "Great Satan" was bestowed upon the United States by Iranian ruler Ruhollah Khomeini and the tune’s jovial, sarcastic inclusion implies criticism on both ends. Before the release of the album, Oberst said that if I'm Wide Awake was meant to be the New York album, then Cassadaga was meant to be the America album. The lyrics span the geography of the country quite well, as in "Coat Check Dream Song" that spins the directions of the compass to foretell disasters. The song ends with some common Arabic singing, with the words "Saada Tekmel B'Lhouria Houria." Its meaning basically intertwines happiness and freedom. "Endless Entertainment" ends with a repeated Bright Eyes mantra, similar to the lines "There is no right way or wrong way, you just have to live" from "Hit the Switch" on Digital Ash. The line is "You don't have to be content, but you do have to get on with it."

Cassadaga is the first Bright Eyes album where the focus ventures away from relationships. A subtle undercurrent is threaded throughout and it becomes evident that the lyrical journey and quest for identity in the lyrics is tightly tied to it. "Hot Knives" speaks of a wife and a mistress and the album battles with this indecision, which becomes indicative of the lyricist himself. One of the secret messages uncovered with the spectral decoder is “We love you Breezy, and we miss you!” She was a harpist for the band that tragically died, and Oberst's relationship with her is depicted in "Breezy," a b-side to his debut solo with The Mystic Valley Band. She gives new definition to the damage that "Great Satan" causes for the "Whore of Babylon" in "Four Winds." The wife could be a character that has been written about before, who used to wait faithfully back in Omaha as the girl from Lifted's “You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will.” The mysterious Laura is strewn all over Lifted and I'm Wide Awake. “Tourist Trap” directly recollects her and implies that something has changed with the line “There’s people here, but you are gone.”

As surmised at the end of “Endless Entertainment,” the mantra of acceptance repeats. A scene in “Susan Miller Rag” has Oberst “dividing memories” at a photo booth. He sings, “Relax your cause, relax your feelings and choose not the one that you want, but the one they just handed you.” The river a constant metaphor for this idea, mentioned in “If the Brakeman” and “Lime Tree.” So, Oberst advises himself to choose the one that the tide of chance brought to him.

It turns out that Cassadaga was also the place where Oberst quit drugs cold turkey. "Cleanse Song" mentions things like "On a detox walk through Glendale Park over sidewalk chalk, someone wrote in red: 'start over.'" It’s a song that Oberst told NME was about “taking a bath. A very long overdue bath.” In “Endless Entertainment,” Laura holds and supports Oberst after he passes out in the tub and she fears that he had died. She’s the one there through his treatment saying, "My love, my love is not the enemy." It’s a scene that gives some sort of reason for why the wife felt compelled to forgive the mistress in "Hot Knives." Laura is also present with Oberst in some manner when he awakens “reborn as a wailing infant in Krug Thep, Thailand.” It was a place Oberst went to try to get healthy. One of Oberst's biggest themes is the balance of life and death. Unfortunately, as he is reborn, his "wife gave birth to a funeral dirge."

The fruit from “Lime Tree” becomes a twist on the old biblical genesis as well as a symbol of fertility both literal and metaphorical. When Oberst bites the fruit he feels nauseous with what he calls the “thief I would have to pursue at all times, at all costs: the truth.” The idea also appears in “Cleanse Song” with “Take the fruit from the tree break the skin with your teeth. Is it bitter or sweet? All depends on your timing,” which Oberst relates to how relationships start, “like a meeting of chance with a train station glance.”

The Lime Tree is the name of a produce market that is just below his New York City apartment. The scene then becomes Oberst wandering around the city and stopping mid-step to stare at the fruit, some of which are rotten and some of which are ripe, and then being struck with an idea. Yet, it seems unclear what it is the Oberst has chosen. He needs his “old friend” because he says “I can’t sleep next to a stranger when I’m coming down.” However, the song ends with him saying “So pleased with a daydream that now living is no good.”

With the four essential additions, the new mix furthers Bright Eyes quest for identity, rounding it off with more hope than ever in "Everything Must Belong Somewhere." Instead of about being lost or about finding your way, the album is about having faith in regret and premonitions and trying to find complacency, as well as the troubles with accepting that complacency. "It's a pilgrimage record to find peace of mind," Oberst said to Lazy-I. "It's a search for contentment, which is what I'm always looking for…Until I get it, then I want out, I want chaos." So the peace is in the balance of the scale, like the scene at the end of “Lime Tree.” He’s shoeless and stumbling through the woods with a spinning compass from Lifted’s “Make War” and no one to protect him from the wolves in Fevers & Mirrors’ “Arienette.” Yet what he finally said to Lazy-I about the small Florida town of Cassadaga was, “I left with this peaceful feeling.” The last lines of “Lime Tree” are “I took off my shoes and walked into the woods. I felt lost and found with every step I took.”

Videos :: 
1) Official Music Videos 
2) Magic Trick Promo Videos 
3) Interviews 


Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)

Four Winds

Hot Knives

Lime Tree

I Must Belong Somewhere

2) Magic Tricks

3) Interviews

Bright Eyes - Track by Track Interview with NME

Interview with Lazy-I
Interview with AV Club