Reviews

Lifted or The Story is in the Soil....

Author: Eric Carr
08/13/2002 | Pitchfork Media | www.pitchforkmedia.com | Album Review
Conor Oberst doesn't read the reviews. Nope, he's not playing for me, as he clearly states on "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)." Fair enough, because it shows. If Oberst was really out to put smiles on the ears of his critics, the sound he's cultivated up through this, his third release, probably wouldn't be quite so constant. By now, expecting Oberst to somehow gravitate away from his tortured tales of youthful angst and the perils of confiding yourself in another seems as hopeless as asking a dolphin to stop using echolocation.

Bright Eyes' jangly acoustic strumming and rise/fall vocal quaver has evolved fairly naturally since his 1998 post-Commander Venus solo debut, Letting Off the Happiness. So, then, would you be shocked to discover that Lifted is just about the least surprising album of all time? It's true. This record will happily provide you with plenty of opportunities to be unsurprised-- vocally, thematically, and in some cases musically. Thankfully, it's all dramatically counterbalanced by some of the most unique arrangements Oberst has dreamt up yet.

The Bright Eyes orchestra lends its services to Lifted, pulling a string section and a few horns out of hock for atmosphere, and even recruiting some drunks for choir detail on "Laura Laurent" (there are some sober folks, too-- not just alkies). When these orchestral elements take center stage, the effect is light-years removed and improved from any previous Bright Eyes offerings, though subdued enough to preserve the essential tone of past works, lest the sound be too disorienting.

The changes on Lifted-- beyond the aforementioned strings and horns-- are immediately recognizable. Somewhere along the way, Oberst has developed a much better ear for melody and left (most of) his shrieking tantrums by the wayside. The tunes are often lighter, even playful at points; a far cry from prior heartsick ballads, some of which did little more than display his temper. Of course, these backroom confessions are as intimate as ever, but the vibrant, slightly more lighthearted arrangements are a knowing wink of one bright eye as Oberst crows, "I could tell you/ The truth like I used to/ And not be afraid of sounding fake/ Now all anyone is listening for are/ The mistakes," on "False Advertising." All the self-consciousness can become draining after a while, but the lion's share of this album consists of songs about his family and friends, and the musings of an artist second-guessing with the prospect of failure (and only 22 years old).

Love it or hate it, the precious, nasal vibrato Oberst affects is the tie that binds all these varied tunes together in the end, and in most cases, it compliments the music admirably. It has its lows, of course, the most notable misstep being the nearly a capella "The Big Picture," which stretches the limit of taste for seven full minutes. Oberst falters often here, giving the illusion of greater emotional heft, although the track only really serves to underscore his vocal limitations. Lifted's other weak moments come with a few rarities heretofore consigned to the limbo of cyberspace. "Method Acting" now comes complete with a backing chorus for the bridge, and "Waste of Paint" sounds to have been reworked a little, but they've been out in the sun too long. Next to the fanged beauty of "Lover I Don't Have to Love," these songs are undeniably faded.

But Lifted hits more than it misses. The slow buildup of strings in the languid waltz of "False Advertising" is exceptional despite containing the album's most embarrassing moment (a contrived 'mistake' in the playing just as Oberst sings "mistake"), though, as with the album as a whole, its accomplishments compensate for its oversights. "Bowl of Oranges" features a delicate, continually shifting piano refrain and bittersweet swells of strings in the background. "So that is how I learned the lesson/ That everyone's alone/ And your eyes must do some raining/ If you're ever going to grow," is backed by major-to-minor shifts to compliment the subtle mix of emotions.

The slow burn of "Don't Know When But a Day Is Gonna Come" hangs like a thundercloud in Western skies as Oberst talks of men with silver guns and dying for his father's sins. The cadence that unrolls and distant piano warbling sound like the first drops of rain that presage an eventual downpour, before the song finally breaks with a flood of strings and guitar. It brings to mind some of the darker moments of The Man in Black himself, Johnny Cash, with all its murmurings of end-times prophecies and sober grit-- and that's just about as high a compliment as I could pay. This track is definitely first among equals with the other great moments of Lifted.

The album wraps with "Let's Not Shit Ourselves," a vaguely country-and-western tune that's all over the place, taking a vague stab at assessing the world's situation and how it relates to Oberst himself. It's wildly pretentious, but the charming-- dare I say, quaintness-- of this record finally makes that an asset, especially on this sweeping closer. He's wracked, maybe by necessity, and he's really starting to turn that to his advantage; the prosaic poetry of his work is genuinely compelling on this album, partly due to pretense, and partly to sincerity. In the end, of course, I'm still somewhat disappointed that Oberst isn't catering to my personal expectations, but as long as he keeps marching toward broader musical horizons, I say more power to him.


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