Method Acting: Bright Eyes’ Lifted Turns 20
Time has made the soil in this story of Conor Oberst’s magnum opus richer than ever
Back in 2002, in the despondent thick of sophomore year at my North Texas high school, it sometimes felt like the only easy thing was to count how many ways I didn’t fit in.
I was a Bergenfield, NJ, transplant in whose mouth “y’all” left a sour taste; a nascent lefty in a county still rated one of the country’s most conservative; a band kid in a proud football town, and a bad one at that (third-chair bassoon).
Barely friended and positively unboyfriendable, I was besotted with decades-old culture I often fell short of understanding, much less properly contextualizing. But my peers were indifferent to, if not ignorant of, these antique obsessions. And though I too was a teen, the era’s teen movies and teen pop and teen trends only reinforced my philistine skepticism over anything happening NOW.
Perhaps I was indeed a yellow rose in a deep-red Bush country bush, thorns threatening at every turn. Or perhaps I was just 14 – depressed by default, not so much precocious as pretentious as fuck, and as untrustworthy with metaphors as I’d be with a car.
Most of this would prove manageable in due time. George W. would nuke his own popularity, the 2000s would become a hotbed of innovative, inspiring art, and strangely compatible senses of rebellion and grievance would strengthen my generation’s common bonds. But my finger wasn’t in the wind. I wasn’t just any misfit, see. I was a misfit’s misfit. That’s right – I hated Bright Eyes.
I mean, of course, Conor Oberst. Most of those he’d proselytized probably saw it the same way – like how Death Cab for Cutie was basically Ben Gibbard, or The Shins just James Mercer. But Oberst’s voice – his literal voice – always seized attention harder than his competition. You know it well, though he’s sedated and streamlined it over time: the querulous quaver of someone stuck so long on the verge of tears they’ve gone mad from a fear they’ll never dislodge. It’s definitively callow – its pain sounds white, middle-class, and exaggerated – but so rattled, you wonder just what exactly the psychic told him.
On A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995 – 1997 – the first time I ever recoiled at that voice – the band WAS only Oberst. On two contemporaneously recorded albums with Commander Venus, his musically competent friends brought shape to songs like those Oberst warbled and strummed erratically on tapes for vanity label Lumberjack Records. The band was good enough to win a contract with Grass Records – who quickly became Wind-Up, and started ignoring their singings in the transition. This killed Venus, but Lumberjack was gaining traction, having beefed up into the soon-to-be seminal Saddle Creek. So Oberst donated 20 of his home demos for their first CD release.
At times a strong lyric works its way out of the murk, or a pleasant melody catches your ear; sometimes even a whole song starts to cohere. But so much of Collection sounds so wrong, flirting harder with unlistenability than Jandek or Daniel Johnston, without the benefit of the former’s mystery or the latter’s mental health issues. Halfhearted arrangements decay midway through, and Oberst sounds so miserable he can’t even be bothered to sing straight. Proudly lo-fi wasn’t new, but the idea was to plant something worth getting into in the dirt. All you got from Oberst was the depth of his emotions, and a sense that he figured it was enough. For me, the only logical reaction was to despise him.
But it was hardly a standard by which Oberst – 15 to 17 at the time – deserved his talents measured. By 1998’s Letting Off the Happiness, Bright Eyes had become a band – not just a bright-eyed boy with a made-up moniker, but a true collaboration between concomitant minds. The players were often a rotating cast. But to this day, the official lineup includes producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, there from the start, and arranger Nate Walcott, who joined during the tour in support of an epically-entitled, out-of-nowhere masterpiece Oberst laid on his loving legions back in my sophomore year.
Letting Off the Happiness (1998) and Fevers and Mirrors (2000) are still somewhat shambolic. Gifted guests provide judicious filigrees, and Mogis employs obscure instruments for angelic touches. Oberst’s voice remains waterlogged with dread, when not possessed by larynx-shredding fits of emotion that feel counterintuitive to the very concept of musicality. But he intended a point in this way of coming on: that the feelings he conveyed indirectly with his lyrics and all too directly with his vocals were too urgent, too bone-deep, to fret over something as superficial as how they sounded. His most ardent fans heard this.
“I’ve never seen anyone in music be so tormented”, the New York Times quoted one in 2002. “When you’re drunk and passed out on your bathroom floor and screaming out loud and no one can hear you because your apartment’s lonely and cold, it’s the perfect music”. These listeners were responding instinctually to records so clearly being made that way. It’s poignant to imagine them tracing the sonic decline of Oberst’s discography in reverse, digging through increasing melodic indifference and audio-verité indulgences, sifting out the brittle emotional missives of the voice buried beneath. The story was indeed in the soil, and what Bright Eyes tilled only got richer each time out.
Oberst’s close circle had been in awe of his ability to bare his wounded soul since his early adolescence, at which point he was already doing so onstage. “When he was a little boy he would ask me if we were going to have a nuclear war, at night before he went to bed,” his mother Nancy told the Los Angeles Times. “I think he’s sensitive in a way that I’m probably not. He allows himself to feel that way. I always say to him it’s his job to do it for all the rest of us who can’t really do that. It takes so much energy, it wears you out, and he’s willing to do it.”
Mogis had a more grounded perception of Oberst’s gifts. “I recognized that this kid was good,” he told PopMatters. “He was phrasing things in such a way that impressed me and made me think. It was rare to see a fourteen-year-old with such eloquence.” Though Mogis’ musical knowledge was less secondhand and imprecise than Oberst’s (“what would Conor do if he knew what a G augmented sharp nine was? That would be a completely different Conor”, quipped Nathan Walcott years later), he was similarly attracted to unconventional sounds for unconventional purposes.
This mentality dovetailed with Oberst’s proclivity to begin and end records without haste. Nearly all of Bright Eyes’ albums begin with long monologues, while Letting Off the Happiness concludes with almost twenty minutes of feedback before it slumps into a secret track. Sometimes this seemed like a challenge to listeners unwilling to hang in for the long haul. But the fabricated “interview” at the end of Fevers and Mirrors – not with Oberst but with Todd Fink of labelmates the Faint, doing a dead-on imitation – hinted at the kind of humor that can only come with a clear, if surrealistic, sense of self-awareness.
Lifted or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground opens with the most intriguing beginning yet. A couple (Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley) get into a car. We hear the slam of the doors, the rev of the engine, the start of the journey, and their muffled banter. “We make it an environment for the music to be in,” Mogis told The Quietus. “You almost feel like you’re in the music. I find it’s a way to draw the listener in and have them experience the music the way we’re experiencing.” This was never more literal than at the start of “The Big Picture” – we’re taking a ride, and on the stereo, guess who, with his permanently wounded vocals and ever-tentative guitar playing. The song is prettyish, but characteristically discursive; Lewis is affected enough to softly sing along.
As if Oberst hears her from inside the dashboard, he aches through a startling four-line confessional, which climaxes in one of those inimitable torrents of unchained anguish: “It was my voice that moved the first rock/and I would do it all again/so I mean, it’s cool if you keep quiet, but/I LIKE SINGING…”
Though sprawl and mess still compelled the band, there’d been collective impulse to reign these things in. “By Lifted I got better at balancing things,” Mogis told Pop Matters. “I was a little more ambitious, but I also wanted things to remain emotive. There’s a difference between [that and] having ear candy just to have it.” Oberst conceded the value of Mogis’ sturdier hand: “[he’s] part of making the vision a reality,” adding dryly that “there are certain things he does later in the recording process to fix mistakes, that’s for sure.”
Oberst himself had just released his most carefully constructed music to date – Desaparecidos’ searing howl of American doubt, Read Music/Speak Spanish. (The band’s name refers to the “forcibly disappeared” under the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.) The music roiled with anger, a protest march against late capitalism’s insidious reach and the religious fervor slowly infecting the American conservative mind. Recorded the week of 9/11 – “the worst time not to be patriotic”, Oberst acknowledged – this was prescient stuff; the war-torn early 2000s would only see a slow crawl of Bush pushback.
The first of his albums (as well as Saddle Creek’s) to enter the Billboard 200, at no point does Lifted feel like “pop”. But the playing is so suffused with spirit and will, the arrangements so attentive and ingratiating, the residual angst and discord go down like a sugared pill. The interplay between Oberst’s outsider-artist technique and Mogis’ more studied hand thrills throughout. “I can describe a thing to him in the most nonmusical terms, like ‘I want this to sound like ice cracking’, or ‘I want this to sparkle’, Oberst told the New Yorker. “And he’ll know.”
The lyrics see Oberst in a typical dialogue with himself – about incipient stardom, about the war between his ugly feelings and the compulsion to create beautiful things – but under Mogis’ sure hand, muddled sentiments hit like clear statements. And the styles explored are winningly eclectic, from the lilting, country-inflected “Bowl of Oranges” and “Make War” to the nightshade pseudo-electronica of “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” to the pure folk balladry of “Waste of Paint”. Oberst and Mogis’ fascination with disruption is best featured in “False Advertising”, where a smear of saccharine strings evokes an older, cleaner pop. A musician makes a mistake, and the song stumbles to a halt. “I’m sorry,” she calls. “It’s OK, it’s OK”, Oberst replies. “1-2-3, 1-2-3…”
Such invigorating violations of the predictable hit so well throughout precisely because they’re so strategic. “You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will.” begins with Oberst’s voice and guitar shrouded in ungainly echo, a distant hint of metallic percussion his only accompaniment. After four story-building verses, the song suddenly spills into the desperate repetitions of the chorus. At once the sound clarifies, the whole band kicks in, and Oberst’s famous quaver vanishes in service of certainty. It’s one of the most beautifully cathartic moments in love-song history.
Lifted climaxes with “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (to Love and Be Loved)”, an extension of Desaparecidos’ righteous rage, and a dry run for 2005’s “When the President Talks to God”, which consummated Oberst’s intention to use his newfound fame for something other than commercial capitulation. The lyrics avoid the latter’s Exacto-knife incisiveness, opting instead for a volley of images that gradually sharpen in accordance with his vocal attack. “A mother takes loans out, sends her kids off to colleges/her family’s reduced to names on a shopping list/while a coroner kneels beneath a great wooden crucifix/he knows there’s worse things than being alone.” The fire in his voice throws light on the bleak contours of his characters’ faces. When he continues, “I’ve learned to retreat at the first sign of danger,” you don’t believe him – the singing is so passionately vitriolic, and the band behind so rousing, you’ve no doubt they’ll gather further power over the course of the next nine minutes.
Trumpets mournfully hail battle-ready lines while an electric harmonica wails on the sidelines. Oberst spits out images of “cowboy presidents” and “poison ink [spewing] from the speechwriter’s pen” – “and the approval rating’s high, so someone’s gonna die.” He cuts the major news networks at the knees with a single stroke, condemns violence-lusting heartlanders from “a fast food marquee”, and sidesteps bravely into an account of a suicide attempt and his father’s heartbreaking response (“you just can’t do it again”). As the images swell and swirl into one another, he deploys his most bloodcurdling scream to date: “to love and be loved, LET’S JUST HOPE THAT IS ENOUGH!”
Lifted was too good not to propel a cult artist into a new sphere of popularity – reviews were rapturous, and high-profile outlets rushed to see what the fuss was about. When Oberst dropped the lead singles for twin follow-ups three years later, they shot to the top of Billboard’s Hot Singles Sales chart. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning fully solidified his reign as King Indie, which he used for good – decrying the commander-in-chief on Jay Leno, or encouraging Jenny Lewis to find her voice outside her band. 2007’s Cassadaga was the best-crafted album yet, and by 2008’s self-titled solo debut, the tremulous vibrato, and the temptation to fill every crack with incidental noise, were gone. He even sounded happy.
It was a hell of an ascent for a kid whose ambitions always exceeded his natural abilities. “All I want is to make enough money to live – which is having an apartment and a shitty car,” Oberst told the Reader in 1998. Two decades later, he’d make coy references to royalty statements in interviews. The ahead-of-himself boy who preferred his pulchritude in broken pieces hadn’t survived the evolution, the warble-to-a-scream rarely resurfacing with the old fervor. Yet the force of his refusal to conform echoes on.
“I think we absolutely are pretentious,” he’d told a reporter in 2002. “Not as people, but with the music. We’ve always made big conceptual records that were theatrical and probably over the top. But I’m not embarrassed about that. I grew up in the nineties listening to indie rock, where everyone was looking at their shoes and it wasn’t cool to try that hard. By the time I got to be in my early twenties doing our band I was like, fuck that.” Or as he cried on Lifted: “I do not read the reviews/I am not singing for you.”
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