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Bright Eyes: Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground

Saddle Creek, 2002

Rating: 3.7

 

 

Posted: August 20, 2002

By Laurence Station

Conor Oberst, the guiding light and sole constant member of the fluid Bright Eyes, is a nine-year veteran of the music business at the ripe old age of 22. Yes, that's right: the Omaha, Nebraska native has been recording since the age of 13, and not, fortunately, because of any musical family legacy of the kind that thrust an obviously unprepared Michael Jackson into the spotlight as a pre-adolescent. No, to his credit, Oberst comes by his veteran status the hard way, having pursued a stridently DIY indie rock ethic that has manifested itself in the creation of a label (Saddle Creek) on which to put out his unique brand of musical therapy. Like fellow songwriter and label head Ani DiFranco, Oberst is well aware that he's in the entertainment business, but that doesn't stop him from using Bright Eyes as a cathartic outlet, a place to vent, pout, plead and rant without the oversight of some unfeeling corporate behemoth dictating the style and substance of his songs.

The upside of this is that Oberst can do whatever he wants; take chances, experiment with sound and form, discover new and exciting ways to express himself and, hopefully, grow as a musician. The downside is a too-easy tendency toward self-indulgence, leaving him blinded by so singular a vision that outside objectivity is shut out of the creative process altogether -- leaving Oberst to record whatever strikes his fancy, no matter how unwieldy or ill-formed the end results might be. The title of Bright Eyes' latest release, Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, perfectly embodies the two-headed beast that is both Oberst's blessing and curse; curiously intriguing, but in a gratuitously pretentious way. And ultimately, this excessiveness carries over into the music, as well.

Oberst wastes no time in establishing Lifted's central theme: The spare, acoustic "The Big Picture" contrasts the growth benefits of travel and experience with the comfort and security that come with remaining homebound. And "Method Acting," with its driving beat and the telling line "I don't know what tomorrow brings/ It is alive with such possibilities," clearly establishes where Oberst stands on the home-vs.-travel issue. That element of motion is cleverly woven throughout the album, with sounds of people walking between rooms, getting in and out of vehicles, cruising down the highway. Such aspects help bind the album together, reinforcing young Conor's restlessness, his desire to see the world and yet not lose touch with the people and places of his hometown.

But not everything works, and when Lifted goes awry, it does so in spectacularly overblown fashion. "False Advertising" inserts a musical miscue at the exact moment Oberst sings the word "mistake." The near-seven-minute "Waste of Paint" starts with a solid acoustic rhythm, and drills it into the ground in a irritatingly repetitive fashion. And the closing ten-minute anti-epic "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (to Love and Be Loved)" tries too hard to connect the world's ills with a failed suicide attempt in which a young man awakens in his hospital bed to find his father sitting nearby, gazing out the window. If the song had focused on the father's visit and the awkwardness of the subsequent conversation between the two, it would have worked far better.

Musically, Lifted is easily Oberst's most accomplished, not to mention audacious, work to date. Integrating the lo-fi elements evident on 1998's Letting off the Happiness with the higher production values of 2000's Fevers and Mirrors, Oberst manages a variety of sound and an expanded tonal range that add a welcome sonic depth to the proceedings. "Lover I Don't Have to Love" is flush with strong arrangements, from its persistent beat to delicate piano touches and dramatic strings, while "Bowl of Oranges" smartly marries a simple, countrified ditty with upbeat, if somewhat maudlin, lyrics. The instrumentation throughout is self-assured, free ranging and proficient, from Oberst to the Bright Eyes Orchestra and the aptly credited Drunken Chorus.

Likewise, Oberst's lyrics have moved beyond the poor-me diary extracts of earlier efforts toward a harder-edged, more grounded tone, as on the excellent "From a Balance Beam," which makes the wryly-cynical observation: "The bystanders claimed they saw angels flying up and down the block/ Well, they must have been attached to wires/ I saw one laying in the lawn with a broken arm, so I called 911."

Yes, Lifted is bogged down by Oberst's familiar faults: a weakness for overly verbose lyrics and an inability to gauge when a song is finished. But the ambitious wunderkind still has quite a few years to hone his craft; it'll be interesting to hear what type of music he's making at 30.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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