It’s been a full 11 years since Bright Eyes’ 3rd album, LIFTED or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, was released on Saddle Creek Records.
As difficult as that is to believe, consider that 2002 is the same year for the release of the Desaparecidos classic, Read Music / Speak Spanish – the Conor Oberst-fronted punk band who, as of the last year and a half, have resumed sporadic touring. So yeah, I’d say that it was a busy year for the indie darling.
The album ranked 4th on Rolling Stone’s best albums of 2002, and at #52 on Blender’s “Best Indie Rock Albums Ever.” Though, I question their list for the following reasons: because it was written in 2007 and thus doesn’t include Yeezus David Bazan’s Curse Your Branches; it has Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine (???) ahead of Beat Happening’s You Turn Me On; and Say Anything’s …Is a Real Boy is nowhere to be found. So in essence, fuck that list.
In retrospect, LIFTED is quintessential mid-era Bright Eyes. Produced by prolific genius “Mike fuckin’ Mogis!” (who also plays a veritable slew of instruments), the album is a behemoth 73 minutes, and features almost 30 collaborators. The resulting effort is a melange of instrumentation that few bands could really pull off.
But that’s the beauty and magic of Saddle Creek. It’s more of a collective, a family of talented people. Not just musicians. Writers, artists, fellow humans.
This congregation mindset reaching its meta zenith on “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” when Conor sings, “Yeah Tim (ed’s note: [Tim] Kasher of Bright Eyes’ labelmate Cursive), I heard your album. It’s better than good. When you get off tour, I think we should hang and black out together.”
The narrative of LIFTED is, in the simplest of terms, depression defined. It’s for this reason that many years after my initial playthrough of the album, it’s incredibly difficult to hear. Almost impossible, even, knowing that after this, he’d release 4 more of some of the most mature and progressive indie rock albums of the first decade-plus of this century, cementing his legacy as one of the premiere artists of the genre.
Now when I hear songs like “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” or “Don’t Know When, But a Day’s Gonna Come,” I can’t help but listen to them through the auditory lens of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, a record that came out just two years later but makes LIFTED sound like a demo.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that this album hasn’t aged particularly well for me because of set and setting: how bleak and perilous it was, the soundtrack for the “dark” and “low” points of teenage years, which just seem so childish now. I’m sure there’s been a point in your life, reader, when you feel the urge to slap the piss out of your younger self for one reason or another.
Still, there’s so much to enjoy on LIFTED despite its desolation – which, in my estimation, makes it seem like we are exploiting Oberst’s persistent sadness. This might explain the internal conflict I feel sifting through his despondent pleas.
Which is not to say that he is without hope. On both the album’s opener “The Big Picture,” a gorgeous collage of atmospheric recordings and a stripped down, 8-track like recording (replicated for a whole track on “Waste of Paint”), eventually lending itself to a studio setting, and its follower “Method Acting” (which ironically sounds more like an album opener than its predecessor, but make up your own mind accordingly), Conor appears to at least be attempting to work past his difficulties with drugs, alcohol, religion, and relationships.
“So it’s cool if you keep quiet, but I like singing,” he sings on “Big Picture,” a sprawling, nearly 9 minute epic. And on “Method Acting,” he writes: “All I know is I feel better when I sing. Burdens are lifted from me. That’s my voice rising.”
Over the course of 13 tracks, Oberst and his assemblage paint barren but unforgettable soundscapes. Some songs even blatantly point to his eventual divergence into a more country- and western-influenced direction, like “Make War” and the drunken “Laura Laurent.” Closer “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves” ambles at 10 minutes long, but showcases Oberst’s acid-tongue political musings, referencing “cowboy presidents” and currency exchanges.
Even though I feel like every tune on LIFTED conjures up Livejournal and Xanga avatars, the fact cannot be disputed: it is and was a hit, and skyrocketed Conor Oberst to the forefront of indie rock.
From his classic, breakout hit, this is Bright Eyes’ “False Advertising” –
Standout tracks: “From a Balance Beam” and “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and to Be Loved)”
Weakest track: “Laura Laurent”
RIYL: Being ashamed of your middle and high school-self. Anything Saddle Creek or Conor’s associated acts (Mystic Valley Band, solo, etc.)