Bright Eyes' 'Lifted' shone brightly among '02 releases

by Peter Jenks | 1/6/03 6:00am

In today's backward music industry, the listener's surprise at discovering a truly talented singer-songwriter is often overshadowed by the disappointment of finding out that artist is a slave to corporate music.

Ergo the popularity of independent music. From indie rock to punk rock and beyond, music fans are drawn to artists with autonomy from corporations that appear concerned with nothing but dollar signs.

Yet it seems the great artists are eventually won over by one major label or another. Bob Dylan, Radiohead and even the initially independent R.E.M., for example, are all essential artists in rock history that eventually sold their souls to the corporate world. It's no surprise that music fans feel a certain dread when their independent bands begin finding wide popular appeal.

Bright Eyes, based out of unlikely Omaha, Neb., is such a band. Yet unlike other artists, frontman Conor Oberst has no incentive to sign to a major label. His band's label, Saddle Creek, is owned by a friend, and Bright Eyes retains complete artistic independence.

That independence is perhaps the most rewarding part of the band's music. Its Aug. 2002 release, "Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground," is a masterpiece of both musical and lyrical form. Oberst's songs usually lack choruses, and they flow with the uninhibited movement of free-verse poetry or even well-crafted prose. With a strong sense of "le moi," Oberst's narrative voice transcends the music on the album.

Even more remarkable than that voice is what Oberst says with it. "Lifted" is a well-formed whole like only a few albums have been; Weezer's "Pinkerton," Radio-head's "OK Computer," and Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks" and "The Times They are A-Changin'" all jump to mind.

Not only is the album well-shaped, but it plays like a crown of sonnets, with imagery repeated again and again throughout the album. The phrase "To love and to be loved" arises verbatim three times in the album.

Likewise, the word or idea of being "lifted" occurs in almost every song. Album opener "The Big Picture," for example, contains the lines "Because this veil it has been lifted, yes/My eyes are wet with clarity" and "So you can struggle in the water/Be too stubborn to die/Or your could just let go/And be lifted to the sky."

The second song, "Method Acting" continues the trend, "All I know is I feel better when I sing/Burdens are lifted from me."

"False Advertising," the next song, keeps it up: "But I found/In the song/And in the people I love/They will lift me up out of darkness." The album continues the theme in almost every song, highlighting different aspects of the redemptive lifting that Oberst is so obsessed with.

The structure of Oberst's individual songs is also noteworthy. Many of the songs on the album can be loosely divided into three movements. Anecdotes pervade in the lyrics of the first section, poignantly highlighting the forthcoming messages. Often, these are followed by stories from Oberst's own life, often tragic yet always well told. Following this is a wrap-up of sorts, where Oberst extends his ideas to make universal statements. This structure is most strongly adhered in songs such as "Bowl of Oranges" and "Waste of Paint," whose structure makes their strong statements both more powerful and fully comprehensible.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Oberst is his wordcraft. His use of language is unparalleled in modern music, evoking the likes of Dylan and Townes Van Zandt at their best. His word choice and turn of phrase allow him to say what he does with such lucidity and force that most of his songs can be written out and read as poetry, with none of the silliness that so many lyrics pick up when taken outside of their musical context. In addition, his songs are epic in length, not necessarily in terms of time -- although the final track, "Let's Not Sh-- Ourselves or To Love or to be Loved," spans over 10 minutes -- but rather in that they are tremendously verbose. Each song contains literally hundreds of words of poetry, all of it breathtaking.

Oberst composes his lyrics, however, with the performance in mind, so the song's musical elements serve to highlight the message of the song. Many songs on the album are heavily orchestrated, adding both to their beauty and to the effect of the lyrics. "Waste of Paint," however, one of the most devastating songs on the album, contains only shoddily recorded acoustic guitar that creates the desolate mood of the track.

Another example of the music's impact on the message is "False Advertising," which is written in giddy 3/4 time, reminiscent of carousel music. The time signature accentuates the lyrics of the song, which begins: "On a string/I was held/The way I move/Can you tell?/My actions are orchestrated from above." The song is about a fake image Oberst has allowed himself to fall into, and the rather careless air of the music juxtaposes with Oberst's realization at the climax of the song: "And I know/What must Change/F-- my face/F-- 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."

The idea of recognizing a false identity and struggling to recover from it is perhaps the central message of the album, and it is inherently a redemptive one.

Conor Oberst is painfully aware of his own attempts at melodrama. In "Lover I Don't Have to Love," he makes fun of himself when he sings,"Some sad singers/They just play tragic." In "Method Acting," he cries, "We need a record of our failures/As we must document our love/I've sat too long in my silence/I've grown too old in my pain/To shed this skin/Be born again."

Oberst does not despair in his desolation, though. Song after song recounts his experiences of being "lifted," and perhaps the clearest expression of that experience are the last words of the album's last song, "Let's Not Sh-- Ourselves," where Oberst literally screams out, "But where was it when I first heard the sweet sound of humility?/It came to my ears in the goddamn loveliest melody/How grateful I was then to be part of the mystery/To love and to be loved/Let's just hope that is enough."

The details of Oberst's life remain unknown to the listener, but one leaves the album sure that he has undergone some sort of spiritual and emotional awakening. Oberst builds a relationship with his listeners that allows them to trust him.

Never do we feel that his experiences are fabricated, and those things most important him are transparently exposed in his poetry. Thanks to Oberst's sharp musical sense and the impassioned delivery of his lyrics, the listener is able to empathize with him on a very deep level.

"Lifted" is the best album of last year and may well end up among the all-time greats, but it simultaneously retains both a personal relevance and the priceless ability to amaze the listener all over again every time it is heard.