Bright Eyes –Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
Record Label: Saddle Creek
Release Date: August 13, 2002
On Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground Bright Eyes are at a crossroads. The past is largely constructed of painstakingly personal acoustic confessions, while the future holds an any-instrument-necessary attack on political and philosophical problems. Rather than try to smoothly transition between these two chapters Lifted presents the listener with a sprawling seventy-three minute long experience where these two stylings are intertwined to produce a Bright Eyes album that remains their most ambitious and best album to date.
Lifted opens with “Big Picture.” Keeping with the Bright Eyes tradition of scaring away casual listeners, drawn in by favorable flavor of the month reviews, by beginning every record with a spoken word segment, “Big Picture” starts and ends with a few minutes of a poorly recorded conversation and background noise. In between this facade Bright Eyes do their best to also hide their true intentions for this record by including one of the sparsest pieces in the Bright Eyes catalogue. On a record that includes over a dozen musicians and even more instruments here singer-songwriter Conor Oberst is complimented only by the occasional strum from his acoustic guitar and barely noticeable background vocals. In contrast to this minimalist approach musically, Oberst starts the record by cautioning “the future's far too big to look at kid / your eyes won't open wide enough.”
Twenty seconds into the second track “Method Acting” the grandness Oberst warned of is apparent as the acoustic strumming that dominated the first track, and earlier Bright Eyes recordings, gives way to the indie rock orchestra that the band has since embraced. The trademark acoustic guitar and indie rock yelp are still present, but now every track is an uncertainty. While other instruments appear on earlier work, now the strings and horns are present for more than the occasional flourish. This is most obvious on “Lover I Don't Have to Love.” Here a cello and violin create a haunting beat for Oberst to lament love over. In contrast to the failed romances that frequented prior Bright Eyes lyrics, here Oberst describes love in a purely physical sense and doesn't shy away from escaping the risk of an emotional connection through a dependence on illicit substances.
With the back-to-back tracks “Bowl of Oranges” and “Don't Know When But a Day is Gonna Come” the midsection of Lifted continues to contrast what Bright Eyes had accomplished in the past with this new found ambition. “Bowl of Oranges” is one of the most upbeat songs that Bright Eyes has ever recorded. Here the orchestral sound that is elsewhere somber or explosive is catchy and unashamedly poppy. When Oberst sings “if the world could remain within a frame / like a painting on the wall / then I think we'd see the beauty then and stand staring in awe” the listener is taken aback as if he has just acknowledged something that he was previously unwilling to. However, this moment of happiness is quickly subdued when the guitar and piano featured on “Don't Know When” kick in. This track is one of the albums highlights and also the best example of old Bright Eyes colliding with new Bright Eyes. The familiar acoustic guitar is slowly joined by new sounds over a six and a half minute track that finds Oberst questioning God, vanity, war, and the loss of youth. The final minute of the track features the orchestra at full force as Oberst expresses his fears that at once feel personal and grandiose.
The back half of Lifted is marked by “Waste of Paint” and “Let's Not Shit Ourselves.” “Waste of Paint” is a track that feels designed to satisfy the traditionalists uncertain about this new path Bright Eyes have taken. Unlike the foreboding calm-before-the-storm acoustic strum on “Big Picture,” on “Waste of Paint” the guitar feels right at home. However, this is not to imply that the track is a compromise only featured to pacify fans of prior albums. The singing, although still straining at points and undeniably suited for indie rock, is much more polished than ever before. It's due to this that the song foreshadows what's to come a few years down the road on the album I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. The album closes with “Let's Not Shit Ourselves.” The track wastes little time in including a hearty sampling of the instruments that have appeared on the album and it never lets up. While the lyrics start off in familiar Bright Eyes territory, with Oberst relaying observations from his personal life, around the half way mark of this ten minute closer Oberst turns to politics and socioeconomic musings. Due to superb songwriting and the general refusal to adhere to any rules on Lifted, this song flows at a driven pace and never feels lost despite the subject matter of the lyrics changing repeatedly.
It's a fitting conclusion for an album that is unapologetic about its sprawling nature. For every four minute track there's one that's over seven minutes. For every guitar there's a horn and a string section. For every lyric addressing a lover there's one aimed at a god or a government. Over the decade since releasing Lifted Bright Eyes have slowly dissected some of the sounds from this album and released more uniform works. These later albums each tend to have a singular style and lyrical scope. On Lifted Bright Eyes forgo the advantages that come with such an approach and allow their past to collide with their ambitions for the future. By the time Oberst sings “I do not read the reviews / No, I am not singing for you” during the albums waning moments it's difficult to disagree with him. From start to finish, Bright Eyes display a healthy disregard for the expectations critics and fans thrust upon the band. Lifted was not recorded as an act of appeasement and as a result the listener is treated to a work that refuses to respond to anything other than the ambitions of the band.
Hey, does anyone read these? If so, any feedback would be much appreciated. Just note that I didn't put much thought into the numeric rating, so if you think I'm off base you probably have a valid point.