Oh, Conor Oberst. I don't buy it. I know you sing about how you "do not read the reviews" in "Let's Not Shit Ourselves", but I don't think either of us really believe that. All the songs on this new record seem to be about either what a stupid fuckup you are or about how Enlightened you've suddenly become, and neither really seems all that sincere. There, I've said it. I know that your entire cult is based on your presumed naked honesty (okay, and the way your hair falls so cunningly into your eyes), but it all seems so calculated to these ears.
Maybe sounding like you're being briskly throttled as you record is your way of conveying pain and anguish -- I know I'm certainly in pain right now. There are times on this record, though, when the quaver fades for a few notes and your voice drops out of hysterical high range, and it's actually pleasant to listen to -- but that never lasts, and that's a shame. You really do have a gift for melody and arrangement (though I don't know how much of the latter is due to the Lullaby for the Working Class guys you record with), and it's almost a shame to see that spoiled with frantic vocals and squirm-inducingly self-important lyrics.
"False Advertising" is a huge step in the right direction -- a richly orchestrated, sweeping waltz with mostly-not-bad lyrics about prostituting one's emotional distress. The rest of the record just doesn't live up to that, and it never seems like you really, honestly mean what you say. After the incredible self-aggrandizement of "Bowl of Oranges", which deals, in part, with the narrator curing a man's depression by spending some time with him (oh, so now your touch heals?), songs with lines like "Everything I've made is trite and cheap and a waste of paint, of tape, of time" ring a bit false. I'd imagine legions of girls will hear that last line and cry out en masse, "No! That's not true, Conor! We love you!" -- and that's exactly what you wanted to hear all along. Seriously, now, giving the appearance of feeling everything so much in these songs comes perilously close to the appearance of feeling nothing at all.