Artist: Bright Eyes
Format: Double LP Gatefold & 3" CD
Label: Saddle Creek
Catalogue Number: LBJ-103
Year of Release: 2007
A1 Clairaudients (Kill Or Be Killed) (6:05)
A2 Four Winds (4:16)
A3 If The Brakeman Turns My Way (4:53)
B1 Hot Knives (4:13)
B2 Make A Plan To Love Me (4:14)
B3 Soul Singer In A Session Band (4:14)
B4 Classic Cars (4:19)
C1 Middleman (4:49)
C2 Cleanse Song (3:28)
C3 No One Would Riot For Less (5:12)
D1 Coat Check Dream Song (4:10)
D2 I Must Belong Somewhere (6:19)
D3 Lime Tree (5:53)
CD Susan Miller Rag (4:07)
(See Discogs for exhaustive credits)
I've come to think of this release as two separate records, rather than a double album. I don't mean that they are stylistically different in the manner of I'm Wide Awake... and Digital Ash... but that there's clearly one great record here (with one bad track on it) and one bad record (with one great track on it).
The great one is sides A and B. Clairaudients continues the great Bright Eyes tradition of having a ponderous and experimental opening number to 'discourage the casual listener' as the sleevenotes to Noise Floor puts it. It's a naive idea in this day and age, but an admirable stance in that it reinforces the idea that this is a collection of songs to be played in a given order, not on shuffle. The collage of orchestral tuning-up sounds and New Age-y guff spouted by a random spiritualist works very well.
I'm not sure what the point of having her on the record is - I don't know whether she's being held up for ridicule, or you're meant to believe the claptrap - but it's a great intro. It did make me think that we were about to get a concept album about Spiritualism, but apart from a mention of Cassadaga in Four Winds, automatic writing in If the Brakeman... and a mystic in Hot Knives, that's it. If there is any kind of unifying theme, it's The Journey, whether that's a physical A to B journey, or the larger life-as-a-journey stuff, doors crop up a lot in the lyrics, as do modes of transport and place names.
The single Four Winds follows, and harks back to the country-rock of I'm Wide Awake with its fiddle opening and stomp-along beat, and has a much more explicit anti-religious stance than some of the more subtle material on that album. Some of the imagery employed is maybe a little slapdash, but the energy of the tune carries it off.
The following track is almost trademark Bright Eyes - references to both prescription and proscribed drugs, self-doubt, -criticism and recovery - but couched in a classic American-sounding tune. It falters slightly with an overly sentimental and clichéd observation about "a mother bathes her child/then the other way around" but recovers well with because of the strong, almost sing-a-long chorus.
The second side starts with the rhythmic and impenetrable Hot Knives, and finishes with Classic Cars, a nice song about having an older lover, which has a nice Hank Williams reference and Gillian Welch on backing vocals. In between come the truly excellent Make a Plan to Love Me, with its doo-wop stylings and outstanding vocal harmonies, and the truly terrible Soul Singer... which has all the wrong Bright Eyes trademarks and in which he compares himself, condescendingly, to a session musician in a very 'poor-me, my life is so hard' fashion, and gets a bit overwrought.
The second record is mostly filler, nothing stands out much for me except I Must Belong Somewhere, confident being Conor where Soul Singer was maudlin and pathetic, all-embracing in its referents where Soul Singer was pretentious, it shows what great songs he is capable of writing, and makes you wonder why he bothered hiding it amongst five other pretty dull numbers. Coat Check Dream Song is OK, but only because John McEntire makes it sound a bit like Tortoise.
The track on the CD, Susan Miller Rag, might be about the Astrologer Susan Miller, or might be about the playboy model Susan Miller, I'd guess the former, but the lyrics are unclear. It's also, sadly, not a piece of ragtime music. It is better than most of sides C and D though, and it seems odd to have only included it with pre-orders of the album, but there you go.
The Pitchfork review, whilst not the most complimentary, draws a nice analogy between Conor and author Dave Eggers. Rolling Stone is more positive, if a little gossipy.
The packaging won a Grammy, and you may think it looks a little dull from the photos above, but you need to employ the Spectral Decoder device to reveal all the pictures and messages therein. Luckily, all the info is also on Wikipedia.