Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground
By: Eric Greenwood
It's far too easy to hate Conor Oberst and, therefore, just dismiss him out of hand. That quavering voice still makes me want to throttle his neck sometimes, but I've got to hand it to him- he knows how to push all my buttons. I hate to think I'm that easily riled, but Oberst is a master manipulator. And what's even more frustrating is that I know he knows it. Reviews are practically powerless against his hold over the disaffected youths that wallow in his exaggerated brand of heartache and hopelessness, as deceitful, ironic, and tongue in cheek as it all is. In fact, the negative press, which is rarer and rarer these days but worn like a badge, only serves to reaffirm the distance between those who "understand" and those who supposedly don't. Adding fuel to the fire is the fact that Oberst's slightly feminine yet boyishly sculpted cheekbones hammer the message home to all the young girls (and boys) that froth at the slightest tousle of his carefully-couldn't-care-less hairstyle. It's fruitless to fight him head on, so I'll try to be more discreet in my censure should it surface, or, rather, when it invariably does.
The outright ridiculousness of the title of this album lends credence to the theory that Oberst is fully cognizant of the fact that he's untouchable at this point in his snowballing underground career. It's insanely pretentious- as though he's daring anyone to call him out. Following suit is the opening track, "The Big Picture." Street level found-sounds serve as the backdrop to what – to me – sounds like a small boy being tortured in a tuneless and rambling pattern but – to the avid fan – probably redefines the art of impassioned folk music. I remain unmoved after the eight minutes and forty-two seconds, albeit somewhat relieved that someone "artfully" cut off that spastic bit of emoting right at the 7:45 minute mark.
"Method Acting" revisits Oberst's undeniable ability to create a tense and rhythmic tune. He's a clever lyricist, using dour and mundane images to explain that what some people call "method acting" he just calls "living." It's both dramatic and absurd, but he pulls it off with a memorable hook and a smart, tension-building arrangement, replete with multiple guitars, an array of horns, and exotic percussion. The faux-1950's balladry of "False Advertising" is remarkably ambitious. The strings seem silly and overblown- disingenuous even. But lyrically, Oberst is in top form here. He handles the accusation that he's faking his tales of woe with calculated aplomb: "Onto a stage, I was pushed/With my sorrow well rehearsed/So give me all your pity and your money now/All of it." And in a witty aside when Oberst sings about how his critics are "listening for…the mistakes" the song stops on a blunder and a backing musician meekly, yells out "sorry." Oberst quickly says "no, it's ok, it's ok" and then counts his band back into the song. So, being the stand-up guy that I am, I have to give credit where it's due, and so I throw one gold doubloon into Mr. Bright Eyes' hat for that bit of genius.
How long can you wallow in utter negativity before you sound like a joke? When faced with a similar quandary a generation ago Robert Smith of The Cure turned his band on its head by writing sleek, commercial, and plainly silly pop songs just to mess with fans and critics alike. Oberst seems equally shrewd, but he approaches it much differently. With a voice like his, Oberst would be an unlikely pop star, so commerce isn't exactly the way out. So, lyrically, throughout Lifted… Oberst keeps a harsh light on himself so as not to seem repetitive. The self-deprecating turn of his lyrics will only endear him more to the converted because that's just, like, so sensitive, but it does work to prevent caricature and self-parody. Plus, I must admit, he's damn good at it.
Even simple, folksy pop songs like "You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will" resonate with the power of Oberst's open-faced, controlling pen. He turns banal sentimentality into heartbreak and makes it hummable: "Are you the love of my lifetime/’Cause there’s been times I’ve had my doubts/We were just kids when I first kissed you/In the attic of my parents’ house/And I wish we were there now/I took so long to figure out/What this book has been about." It's impossible to deny his craftiness, especially when it's this catchy. The unexpectedly hip low-end bounce of "Lover I Don't Have To Love" reveals an unforeseen sense of pop sophistication that suggests, perhaps, maybe, in some alternative universe Oberst could be famous on a MTV-sized scale. Don't tell his fans that, though, because they would run wildly screaming that he is THEIRS and shallow teenyboppers CANNOT have him. Settle down ladies, I'm only theorizing.
On Lifted… Oberst has seemingly outsmarted his critics by incorporating them into his knowingly pandering schtick. It's a cunning move, and as much as I hate to admit it- it actually works. This album is an extraordinary display of Oberst's songwriting prowess. It's obscenely ambitious and pretentious and ridiculous but unquestionably memorable and affecting. One doesn't accidentally stumble upon a melody and lyric as inextricably connected as the one in "Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come." Such things are borne out of true talent and skill. You can hate his voice and his pretentiousness and his effeminate pretty boy charm and choose to ignore him, but you'd be missing out. I've watched his growth with equal horror and admiration, and Lifted… has finally proven to me that Conor Oberst is not going away.