Saddle Creek | Bright Eyes | Reviews


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

Author: John Everhart
08/14/2002 | Nude as the News | | Album Review
In the alternately bucolic and ominous "Twin Peaks," Agent Dale Cooper makes the nebulous declaration, "crack the code, and solve the puzzle" in discussing his methodology for solving the mystery of Laura Palmer's murder. Of course he finally found out who the killer was, via pure serendipity, intuition, and some help from a midget and a giant, but the series ended without an ultimate resolution. David Lynch didn't attempt closure. It was open-ended, and frustrating. So the question arises: how do you crack the code when the reception's fraught with static? When there might not be any message in the first place? Is it worth it to bother at all? Conor Oberst dwells painstakingly on these conundrums throughout the magnificent Lifted, or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground.

The album opens with a recording of a car starting and a drive along with conversation, eventually segueing into "The Big Picture," at first indecipherable beneath the background noise, but slowly becoming more clear, like a half-remembered dream you're not even sure you had. The song finds Oberst intoning biblical references ("don't go blaming your knowledge on some fruit you ate") and morose observations ("Is it your fear of being buried that makes you so afraid to speak?") until finally, just when there seems to be a breakthrough, as his tremulous vocal rises to a climax ("you can just let go, and reach up to the sky, ah, ah, ah"), the track cuts out, giving way to a collage of voices and random noises, sounding like the murmurs of lost ghosts. The gauntlet has been laid down, a challenge to stick with him while he attempts to gather the strewn pieces of ephemera lost in the calamity.

The languid "Method Acting" entices, kicking into an orchestrated maelstrom sounding like The Flaming Lips covering Syd Barrett's "Terrapin", as Oberst vehemently declares, "I don't know what tomorrow will bring / it's alive with such possibilities / all I know is that I feel better when I sing / soon I will disappear." "False Advertising" has a woozy, vertigo-inducing quality, recalling the grandeur of Mercury Rev's Deserter's Songs. Its beauty is betrayed by brutal, self-loathing invectives, as Oberst sings "Fuck my face, fuck my name; they are brief and false advertisements" in a bilious tone.

"You will. You? Will You? Will. You?" is a pretty, shuffling number, and one of the most optimistic songs Oberst's ever committed to tape. Austere in an early Elliott Smith manner, it begins with just a hushed acoustic guitar, with Oberst gently urging, "you are a boomerang, you will return to me," before metamorphosing into a sprightly sing-song closing with the warning, "if you don't, then I'll start drinking the way I drank before, and I just won't have a future anymore." The licentious "Lover I Don't Have To Love," is a leaner, more sinister rewrite of Fevers and Mirrors' "Movement Of A Hand". Equally gorgeous, the track mediates on a one-night stand (between "the boy who's too drunk to talk" and "a girl too sad to give a fuck") which Oberst deconstructs, until cynically concluding that "Love's an excuse to get hurt, and to hurt. Do you like to hurt? I do. Well, hurt me."

Levity is found in the enchanting "Bowl Of Oranges," a classic three-minute folk-torch song. Its gentle introductory strums slowly swell into a mesh of somber piano, guitar and strings, with Oberst giving one of his best vocal performances to date. Exuding radiant warmth, he quietly assures, "And we'll keep working on the problem, that we know we'll never solve, of life's uneven remainders, we're a fraction of a whole."

After an ambient piano-and-acoustic-guitar interlude, the centerpiece of the record is unveiled, the sepulchral "Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come". Focusing on doomsday ("a day is gonna come, when it all goes black, the way it's supposed to be") and the inherent blurriness of subjectivity ("there is no truth, there is only what you make the truth"), the track builds to a white-noise crescendo reminiscent of Godspeed You Black Emperor. "Nothing Gets Crossed Out" is a return to the more understated folk offerings, with Maria Taylor's achingly gorgeous backing vocals providing the song a lithe quality, swirling beneath a muted glockenspiel, while a supple, marching-band drum kit provides the song's heartbeat, finally giving way to Oberst's realization that, "everything that happens is supposed to be, life's all predetermined, can't change your destiny."

"Laura Laurent" reads like a letter never sent to your saddest friend, a vain attempt to convince her to hold on. Suffused with a profound sense of longing, it culminates with the lamentation "you should never be embarrassed by your trouble with living, 'cause it's the ones with the sorest throats, Laura, who have done the most singing," followed by a vigorous call of "everybody," and a should-have-been-corny-but-manages-to-work wordless singalong punctuated by the announcement, "That was really great!" It's gestures like these which imbue this album with a sense of inclusiveness not experienced in pop music since R.E.M. invited everyone to "come on aboard, we promise you, we won't hurt the horse" on the b-side "Bandwagon." Of course this was just one example of R.E.M.'s overwhelmingly generous ethos, and Oberst carries on that spirit. Like when he declares "my door stands wide open, and I'm inviting everyone in, and we're gonna laugh, we're gonna drink until the morning comes" during "False Advertising". Or when he unleashes a character sketch of unflinching objectivity (the aforementioned "Laura Laurent"), and a willingness to champion the displaced characters that no one wants (the woman in "Waste Of Paint" who "found out he had lied, so she decided the rest of her life would be a lie.")

The album closes with the ten-minute opus "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved)". Bright Eyes' most audacious experiment to date, the song is a twangy, Neil Young "This Note's For You"-style kiss off, careening recklessly through brazen themes (war, a drug overdose, media propaganda, political puppets), until coming to the ambivalent conclusion: "how lucky I was to be a part of the mystery, to love and to be loved, let's just hope that it's enough."

A maddeningly ambitious album, Lifted fits into the pantheon of the great concept records of the past few years, joining the likes of The Flaming Lips' The Soft Bulletin, and Neutral Milk Hotel's In The Aeroplane Over The Sea. I don't know what Conor Oberst set out to achieve with this, but he's succeeded in creating a work of brutal honesty and keen self awareness, best summed up in "Method Acting" when he pleads that, "we have a problem with no solution but to love and to be loved," a wistful theme which pervades this magical record.


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