Classic Cars from the album Casadaga
Album cover art has taken a beating. Shrunken to jewel box size, much of the impact of 12-inch vinyl artwork is diminished when miniaturized to accommodate a CD's smaller diameter. Not all rock 'n' roll vinyl covers were brilliant, of course — it's only the fun or iconic ones that really stand out — but when Virgin, for instance, reissued Sticky Fingers a few years ago with the Warhol bulging jeans and real zipper cover, only in tiny form, it was cute but didn't really deliver the same crotch-in-face brazenness. Zeppelin's best covers — like III's spin-the-wheel and In Through the Out Door's paper bag and moisture-enacted color inner sleeve — haven't even been attempted for their wide-release CD versions. With the trend apparently heading to digital music storage and playback, the whole concept of album cover art itself may be in jeopardy.
Therefore, when somebody does something original and clever, they deserve a chorus of cheers. Sure, special editions and box sets always have crazy packaging, but I'm talking about your standard new-release-Tuesday product, like the Shins' Chutes Too Narrow, which had a very colorful storybook-style multi-layer fold-out cover.
When I first saw the cover for Bright Eyes' latest, Cassadaga, I thought it was the ugliest CD art ever made. After all, it's just a bunch of tight, tiny, squiggly black lines on a white background — up close, it resembles TV static; glanced from a distance, it just looks like a dull gray canvas, like one of those non-paintings you see in certain modern art museums and you wonder what it's doing on the wall. But then I open it up and pull out the little spectral decoder — developed by UK company 3-D Images Ltd. — and upon moving it around the cover panels realize that there are all sorts of ghostly drawings and messages hidden there. It's truly one of the coolest concepts for a CD cover I've ever seen.
It almost makes me want to not even bother discussing the music. But that would be doing Conor Oberst and pals a huge disservice. After discovering Bright Eyes at a show around the time of Fevers and Mirrors, I went through that initial phase where I was intrigued and impressed with the kid's talents, only to become annoyed by all of his quavering whining, overwrought lyrics and emo-hair, which has spawned a generation of lookalikes. As Bright Eyes gained more critical acclaim and a larger audience, I found myself tuning them out, unable to listen to those intervening albums without wincing. But this new one is pretty incredible. Sheer magic, even, at times.
Working with a scattered crew that this go-round includes Rachel Yamagata, Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney, Quasi), M. Ward, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings, as well as longtime cohorts like Andy LeMaster and Conor's girlfriend, Maria Taylor, the core of Oberst, guitarist/string player Mike Mogis, and keyboardist Nate Walcott have crafted a lovely song-cycle steeped in grand, dreamy, largely acoustic Americana, with lap steels and violins setting the mood and taking the solos.
Vocally, Oberst is more restrained than he has allowed himself to be, and as a result he's far more effective as a singer. The lyrics are evocative, poetic, and strong, examining institutions like religion and government and their weight over the population. It's Oberst's first album that doesn't sound like the work of a gifted, naïve teen or a jabbering, naïve young adult. It simply sounds like the work of a great artist. Finally the promise of Oberst's initial reputation has been cashed in. And as it turns out, we've gotten much more than we expected. Not to mention a really nifty CD cover.