Reviews

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

09/17/2002 | Neumu.com | www.neumu.com | Album Review
Conor Oberst, the playing-as-hard-as-Steve-Earle guitar-strumming boy-o with the wailing voice behind Bright Eyes, is kinda like the American rock underground's equivalent of Paul Thomas Anderson. His records are insane works of ego - massive undertakings of artistic dice-rolling tantamount to pop-cultural hubris, working broadly with broad emotional tools whilst chasing some kind of idiosyncrasy. Essentially it's lyrically bloodletting a bleeding heart, then throwing the musical equivalent of raining frogs into the proceedings. And, resultingly, people are really split as to his worth, with accusations of outright fraud and outright genius thrown up with equal regularity. And there's the real possibility that he could be both.

To backtrack: in 1999, at 19, young Conor turns up with a hazy Elephant 6 association, sounding, on the debut Bright Eyes album Letting Off the Happiness, like a troubled teen who's flogged his Neutral Milk Hotel records within an inch of their life, throwing out such delightful lyrics as "I give myself three days to feel better/ Or else I swear I'm driving off a fucking cliff/ Because if I can't make myself feel better/ Then how can I expect anyone else to give a shit." The kid's 19, he's cute as a button, and he's pitching lines like that. It's no surprise that other young, sad, sappy suckers fall over Conor in droves. To some, he's a songwriting wunderkind. To others, he's the indie-angst scene's answer to Ryan Adams.

By the end of that year, as we're tickin' over to the two-triple-oh, he then lets loose with Every Day and Night, an EP so bewilderingly angry and tonally silly that even those who'd proudly been pro- or anti-Oberst now had trouble making up their minds. Simultaneously getting more folksy whilst experimenting with really awkward beats-and-loops, he delivers the most memorable moment on the set when he turns his self-rage on others, yelling "I believe that lovers should be chained together/ And thrown into a fire with their songs and letters/ And left there to burn... in their arrogance." By this stage, the songwriting boy wonder has developed a sizeable strut, and there's close to a waft of rock star coming off of Conor.

Later that year he fronts with the second Bright Eyes album, Fevers & Mirrors. And this is where the gimmicks come in: spooky field-recordings, answering-machine messages, and performance-art faux-rock radio interviews. But he does lots of yelling. And whether you believe the lines he's spinning or not, his yelling sounds like he believes it. There's greatness here. But, there's also greyness. It's all so grey. Was Bright Eyes a grey rabbit?

Back with a third album, Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Bright Eyes takes Conor's pet predilections to ludicrous ends. It is, in such, truly great, or truly arrogant, or truly conceited, or truly preposterous, or truly confused, or truly bemused, or truly profound, or truly magnificent. Or maybe all of these things. At once. Or at times. He's armed with a veritable orchestra of players this time around, but there are still those little gimmicky interludes and games of audio-fidelity that the boy loves with his blackened heart. The amazing "False Advertising," the high point on a sprawling, overwrought, eye-popping 17-track/73-minute album, is beholden to all of these things. Making out like a stately torch song over a Muscle Shoals beat, there's vinyl crackles and a transistor-radio chorus, and then there's a dozen-some orchestral hands, many on percussion, making things mighty grandiose as Oberst unveils some more self-loathing sentiments like "And I know what must change/ Fuck my face, fuck my name/ They are brief and false advertisements/ For a soul I don't have/ Something true I have lacked/ And spent my whole life trying to make up for." In the middle of the song, there's this moment where someone in the big-band "drops it," possibly the trumpeter, it seems; and there's Oberst, ever the rock trouper, unfazed, rallying the troops to pick back up and start the song again with a 1-2-3-1-2-3.

But listen to the lyrics that precede it, and there's this capricious boy, musing on his life in Bright Eyes, singing: "If I could act like this was my real life/ And not some cage where I've been placed/ Then I could tell you the truth like I used to/ and not be afraid of sounding fake/ Now all that anyone's listening for are the mistakes." And, then, on cue, there's a mistake. Go back before that, and there's Conor crooning: "Onto a stage, I was pushed/ With my sorrow well rehearsed/ So give me all your pity and your money," to which the chorus answers with the affirmation "We used to think that sound was something pure."

At the end of the song, the band having 'gotten through it,' a surrogate audience cheers enthusiastically, providing a mock response to all that has come before, presumably praising the mistakes while ignorant to the lyrics. Hearing the crowd cheering is reminiscent of all of those Cat Power live shows, where Chan Marshall says something like "I'm sorry, this show's so terrible"; to which the audience, in either obliviousness or support, cheers. Uh, so, I guess the question is: d'y'want to watch a handsome girl squirming to death on stage, or see a cute boy screaming about the psychological torment of being there? Or do you think these self-obsessed Americans should get over it? And have you watched television lately? And, how do we react when the observed party reacts to being observed? Do we call it pettiness, or is it the most truthful? And, in art, which is all such artifice, what place has truth?



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