Bright Eyes, Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Saddle Creek Records, 2002
What to do with this disc that has such amazing highs and such dreadful lows? It’s clear that Conor Oberst, the force behind the band Bright Eyes, is a talented musician capable of writing both catchy tunes and complex ones. Yet at the same time, it’s also abundantly clear on this disc that he’s also a completely immature, pretentious ass with a voice that borders on grating. For all the strengths of the 14 songs on this album, there is most likely a dribbling or a fountain of Oberst’s logorrhea messing up each track.
I’ve literally never seen songs with this much lyrical content, most of it in bad need of editorial pruning. When I was a young whippersnapper in my first poetry class in college, I felt as I’m sure Oberst feels, that every word I wrote was a sacred drop of my own blood squeezed from my very tragic, very tortured heart. I didn’t want to hear “less” from my teachers; I wanted them swooning for “more.” It took a very gruff teacher (and middling poet) to convince me that there was a great, great good in turning your pencil around, using the eraser, and wiping a good fifty percent of your words right off the page.
Obviously Oberst, influenced as one can guess by Whitman, Ginsberg, and Dylan, has never heard this sage advice. Which is a shame, as I’ve already stated, because musically there is some gold here, though some of the notes on the page might need to be panned out to really get its full value.
And the problem is that Oberst’s inflated sense of self gets in the way of this possibility. Let’s take a look, shall we, at his record label’s fellatal paean on their site:
Inherent in youth is a kinetic energy, vitality and passion that has the potential to move masses. Every new generation picks a voice that will offer them something to identify with -- something to prove to them that the crazy things they’re feeling and the anger that they’re having and the disillusionment that’s plaguing them is normal. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst is that voice.
Born 1980 in Omaha and recording since he was 13, Conor Oberst owns a voice that quakes with the tumultuous energy that only youth can produce. Oberst's incredible ability to tell stories with his songs and paint intricate pictures with his words is reminiscent, without being derivative, of mid-period Dylan. And his gift for composing and delivering those songs is pure poetry. As the mastermind behind the acclaimed Bright Eyes collective, Oberst’s genius is found in a pretense-free, orchestral approach to songwriting.
First off, anyone who describes their band not as a band or a group but as a collective needs a good shaking or at least a boot in the ass. As for the rest? Incredible ability to tell stories and paint intricate pictures with his words, eh? Very well, then, let’s take a look at this overweening talent, shall we? Here’s a bit from the bouncy “Bowl of Oranges.”
I came up a doctor who appeared in quite poor health.
I said "(I am terribly sorry but) there is nothing I can do for you
(that) you can't do for yourself."
He said "Oh yes you can. Just hold my hand. I think that would help."
So I sat with him a while and then I asked him how he felt.
He said, "I think I'm cured. No, in fact, I'm sure of it.
Thank you Stranger, for your therapeutic smile."
So that is how I learned the lesson that everyone is alone.
And your eyes must do some raining if you are ever going to grow.
But when crying don't help and you can't compose yourself.
It is best to compose a poem, an honest longing or simple song of hope.
Aww, can’t you just feel the genius nudging you and winking, showing his remarkable depth and purity? I’ll bet that doctor sure was glad this bright-eyed little wunderkind came along to hold his hand and impart the words of wisdom he’d gained in his twenty-two years. Just write a poem, or better yet compose one, that way it’ll have extra-special, super-duper therapeutic smile power. Then you too could be the voice of your generation’s particular collective.
Oh, but wait, there’s more. So so so much more. Here’s a squirt from “Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come”:
So you think I need some discipline,
Well, I had my share.
I have been sent to my room.
I've been sat in a chair.
And I held my tongue.
I didn't plug my ears.
No, I got a good talking to.
And now I don't know why,
But I still try to smile when they talk at me
Like I'm just a child.
Well, I'm not a child.
No, I am much younger than that.
Granted, this song really has to be heard to get the full gist of its pretension. Those last lines are delivered in punctuated bursts. "Well. I’m. Not. A. Child. No...I. Am. Much...Younger. Than. That.”
You’re a baby?
Really, I’m having trouble deciding what Oberst is getting at here. When I put on my haughty pompous hat, the best thing I can come up with is Oberst is saying when his voice drops and he gets all weighty with the word "Younger" that “I’m even more pure than a child, dig? I’m, like, a baby, all pure and Garden of Eden and shit, man.” Gosh, so young and so modest all in one package. What a talent!
All the while timpani thunder throughout Lifted’s swooping orchestral arrangements, adding faux gravitas to Oberst’s lyrical overdose. This same song ends with the rather sociopathic pretend depth of the lines “I would say that there is no truth. There is only you and what you make the truth.” Fair enough. To me, it’s a truth that that sentiment is shit.
The countrified “Make War” demonstrates Oberst’s rather unique stilted delivery and overly long lines by having others sing them. At the song’s end, the music drops out and we’re given an a cappella choir rendition of the chorus. The group effort doesn't pay off and The Bright Eyes Back Up Singers come off stilted and stumbling. Try singing these lines and look at how Oberst is missing the sense of meter the best lyricists infuse their words with:
So hurry up and run to the one that you love
And blind him with your kindness
And he'll make war, oh, war, on who you were before
And claim all that has spoiled in your heart
Yeah, And claim all that has spoiled in your heart
The real flaw here is that Oberst comes off as a melodramatic Beck imitator, wanting to appropriate a variety of musical stylings (folk, country, dance, rock), but he's too ego-ridden to pull it off. Why it works for Beck is his self-effacing loosey-goosiness. He doesn't take himself so seriously and can easily step right into this music that he loves. Oberst is so enamored of himself and his point of view that he won't let himself fully inhabit the various genres he tries to dress up in.
That quality holding back the music disappears the moment Oberst shuts his freaking mouth and lets the songs come through. “Make War” has a great country vibe with its steel pedal and slide guitars, but it's only in the instrumental sections that this illusory quality can be maintained. As soon as Oberst resumes singing, it just goes back into his wordy, overlong phrasings.
The highest point on the album is the track “You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will”, which, despite its goofy title is very Paul Westerberg-esque in its phrasing both musically and lyrically, and in its sound. It's the album's most accessible and most hit pop single oriented track. While that could, in some circles, be considered a slam, after listening to this album six times, I have to say this song shines like an oasis of self-control. Oberst’s voice is pining and wistful, and even his gimmicky trick of singing across the room from the microphone before stepping up to it near the song’s end plays to the song’s longing and desire. Too bad he had to go right back to his childish play at depth in the follow up song “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” with the ending lyrics:
You write such pretty words
But life's no storybook
Love's an excuse to get hurt
And to hurt
Do you like to hurt?
I do, I do
Then hurt me
Then hurt me
Then hurt me
Oh, Conor, if only I could.