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Two minutes into Bright Eyes’ new Lifted: Or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Conor Oberst starts scratching out a rant. After many thrilling found-sound moments that purport to document a few friends going for a drive, he begins barely accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and spouting half-baked, sub-Dylan aphorisms. “But if you want to see the future/Go stare into a cloud,” he sings tunelessly, and from there his lyrics turn more and more purple as his voice becomes a series of howls. There’s probably nothing Oberst, Bright Eyes’ auteur, would like better than if you gave up on his album at this point. If enough people were to do that, perhaps the major labels would leave him alone, Time would stop bestowing embarrassing sobriquets such as “accidental heartthrob,” and he could concentrate on pouring out his broken heart to the fine young indie-rock ladies who got him into this predicament in the first place.
But then Oberst cuts himself off midyelp and launches into “Method Acting,” martial snares rat-a-tatting and bells a-ringing behind him. “So Michael, please keep the tape rolling/Boys, keep strumming those guitars,” he warbles, and, remarkably, it doesn’t sound in the least pretentious. Maybe that’s because Oberst always sounds as if he’s on the brink of tears, which tends to lend his songs big-M meaning even when you can’t tell what he’s on about.
Bright Eyes’ last album, 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors, included a track called “Something Vague,” which is as good a description of Oberst’s uberconfessional lyrical MO as any. But the themes that appear again and again in his work
are debt and loss. The former was explored in depth on Read Music/ Speak Spanish, the terrific 2002 debut LP by Oberst’s rock group, Desaparecidos. On that one, he and his Omaha, Neb., homeboys examined the spiritual costs of America’s mall-a-minute culture: Stories of earnest middle-class strivers becoming buried under shopping bags and high-interest credit cards were skillfully set against diatribes against farms turning into housing developments.
Lifted, Bright Eyes’ fourth LP, explores loss. Loss of confidence: “False Advertising” finds Oberst regretting “something true I have lacked.” Loss of innocence: “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” sees him wistfully looking back on the days when he played in “basements made of music.” And, most of all, loss of love: Drop the laser anywhere to hear his thoughts on that.
This seems as good a time as any to mention that Oberst is 22 years old, which is relevant only in that he’s still young enough to let doggerel like “Laura, you were the saddest song/In the shape of a woman” past Quality Control. But it’s easy to overlook such youthful indiscretions, because Oberst’s way with words also allows him to toss off painfully precocious insights into relationships—for example, likening physical contact with an ex to an exchange of documents with a drive-through-bank teller.
And for a kid, Oberst sure has some advanced ideas about making records. “Now all anyone’s listening for are the mistakes” he sings on “False Advertising,” right before an accompanist flubs a note on her French horn and everything stops. She apologizes; he says, “No—it’s OK. It’s OK,” and counts the band back in. At the end of the track, everyone in the studio applauds, and Oberst unplugs his guitar and wanders out into the stairwell to record “You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will.” by himself before his bass player—and later his whole group—catches up with him. Listening to Bright Eyes means making a certain commitment to the minutiae of Oberst’s life, and on Lifted that entails putting up with jarring transitions, tape collages, and other assorted artful dodges, such as the drowning-in-record-crackle fireside sing-along that closes the countrified “Make War.”
Previous Bright Eyes outings—in addition to Fevers and Mirrors, 1998’s A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 and Letting Off the Happiness, as well as a slew of singles, EPs, and collaborations—were somewhat limited in fidelity, but Oberst suffers no such restraints on Lifted. This time out, he’s got horns, strings, and a huge freakin’ chorus to play with, courtesy of his longtime producers, Mike Mogis and Andy Lemaster, and guests from fellow Omaha luminaries such as the Faint. The result is overproduced and beautiful folk-rock with a rangy lushness that suits Oberst’s full-disclosure policy nicely.
It’s difficult to imagine that many listeners could muster concern about the trials of an indie hottie, but Oberst has an almost Eminem-like way of drawing you into his personal life. He opens up so much, you can’t help but root for him. On “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” he parses the Courvoisier he slips some young thing while on tour. “I want a girl who’s too sad to give a fuck,” he says as the strings come in, but both he and his new special friend know where this is going: “I’ll meet up with the band in the morning,” he sighs. And on “Waste of Paint,” he suggests that this whole anguished-rocker thing might be a little silly: “As I hide behind these books I read/While scribbling my poetry/Like art could save a wretch like me/With some ideal ideology….” he sings. “And everything I made is trite/And cheap/And a waste.”
But Lifted’s raison d’etre is its final number, “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and to Be Loved),” in which our boy catalogs the components of his anomie, conveniently brought to him by the evening news—politicians’ bullshit, war, racism, postmillennial depression—but tears himself away from the screen in time to realize how thankful he is that he can still love other people and vice versa. “How grateful I was then to be part of the mystery/To love and to be loved,” Oberst rasps. It’s an echo of an earlier sentiment in “Don’t Know When But a Day is Gonna Come,” when Oberst returns from tour and gets drunk with some friends, only to realize that he’s “nothing without their love.”
It’s corny, but in Oberst’s hands, it’s also heartbreaking. And that goes for almost all of Lifted, which pushes the boundaries of the singer-songwriter album just about off the map. “I do not read the reviews,” Oberst sings to the media on “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves.” “No, I am not singing for you.” Yeah, whatever, Conor, but even accidental heartthrobs can distance themselves from inevitable stardom for only so long. CP