By Ashley Zimmerman
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Conor Oberst hates to talk. The 22-year-old singer/songwriter behind the ambitious indie-rock success story Bright Eyes halts and hesitates between every phrase during a telephone interview from his Omaha home. As if he's constantly rethinking what he has to say, his words fade and falter just short of stuttering. His discomfort stands in direct contrast to the soul-baring singer's performances and recordings, where topics from social injustice to self-loathing are dissected with lucid, moving attention to detail, all delivered in a rousing voice stretched to its anguished limits.
Publicity surrounding the nascent Nebraska alterna-scene, led by a stable of artists on the record label Oberst co-founded (Saddle Creek), has heaped some unwanted pressure upon this modest musician. Ten years into a career that began with independently released seven-inch singles at age 13, Bright Eyes has quietly snared the eyes and ears of the biggest and loudest media outlets. This summer, Time magazine published an article on Omaha's heretofore-undiscovered vise-grip on cool. And Rolling Stone led its recent article on the top ten new artists with Bright Eyes and gave the band's new album, Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, a glowing review, anointing it with four out of five stars.
Despite enjoying a barrage of the press's equivalent of sexual favors, Oberst remains unimpressed. "They all write pretty much the same story: 'Young kid recording on a four-track since he was 12 makes a lot of angst-filled punk-indie-folk albums, now making orchestrated folk,'" bemoans Oberst, gulping coffee between sentences and audibly rattling his morning newspaper. "They talk about Omaha in all the articles, the Omaha music scene, which is still pretty funny to me. I think they all just kind of rewrite what they've already read. It's always the same general thing and the same questions, but at the same time, I know it's necessary. At the end of the day, it's a positive thing."
These complaints only scratch the veneer of Oberst's reluctant concession to the music press. He ponders his lack of interest in the subject, then surfaces with a simple observation: "It's not the easiest thing to just talk about yourself," he stammers. Yet even before puberty came calling, the young musician had been pouring his heart into his self-obsessive songs, recording them in his bedroom. For most of his teenage years, music, not speech, has been Oberst's chosen method of communication.
Bright Eyes' fourth full-length screams for a dialogue with its varied characters, not the artist who created it. With 13 tracks totaling 73 minutes of storytelling, Lifted demands much from the listener. Most songs average six minutes, with a couple hanging around for nearly ten. Oberst weathers recent press comparisons to Bob Dylan with marked cynicism. In truth, bits of Lifted recall the wisdom and vision of Wish You Were Here and The White Albumas much as Blonde on Blonde. Given some hindsight, Lifted even stands a chance of surpassing these landmarks. Too young to be inhibited by the repression that seems to haunt many older indie artists, Oberst goes for the gold in Lifted, ripping a hole in the rock continuum with creative abandon, bursting its boundaries and smoothly steering the remains into the realms of craggy country ("Make War"), grandiose chamber pop ("Don't Know When but a Day Is Gonna Come"), and chandelier-lit waltz ("False Advertising").
"Big Picture," the cold, barren track that opens Lifted, begins with the sound of a pair of kids hopping into a car for a ride. The first two minutes is filled with mundane chatter and the sound of a car starting, its wheels crunching on the snow, and the beat of its wipers sweeping back and forth across its windshield as the kids drive along. The empty song slowly fills with music as a subtle harmonic hum begins fading in. Then the harsh, sometimes clumsily awkward plucking of an acoustic guitar infiltrates as Oberst's characteristic quavering voice begins reciting the words to a tune that's been a live Bright Eyes staple for several years but has never been committed to record: "This veil it has been lifted/My eyes are wet with clarity/I've been witness to such wonders, and I've searched across the country," he sings in a high, pained voice as cracked as an old weathervane. All the while, the rumble of the car's engine continues as its female passenger joins in humming and singing along to the song. Six minutes later, with Oberst in mid-holler, the radio is abruptly shut off and the two can be heard getting out of the car, stomping through the snow as they continue their conversation.
"It just seemed like a nice idea," explains the tune's composer. "One of the themes of the record was what music can do for people, like what it does for me and my friends. The album's about the role music plays in people's lives as a positive force. The girl singing along to the tape in the car was just a pretty image to me, I guess, because that's what I do: just driving, singing along to whatever my favorite shit is. That was kind of the idea. In a way, you make music for yourself and for your friends, but if you're putting out records and going on tour, you're hoping to make a connection with people."
Lifted's centerpiece, if it has one, is "Lover I Don't Have to Love," in which Oberst bridges the emotional chasm between author and audience with lines as direct as "I want a lover I don't have to love/I want a boy who's so drunk he doesn't talk"), all the while surfing a swell of choppy-sea cellos.
To make this connection even more visceral, Oberst will try to translate the ambitious songs from Lifted as faithfully as possible in his live performances. That means taking a band the size of a small orchestra on tour with him. At full capacity, Bright Eyes now requires 14 people on stage: three drummers, a bassist, a pair of keyboardists, and a pedal steel guitarist, plus musicians to play banjo, trumpet, flute, bassoon, cello, violin, vibraphones, and chimes. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it's all going to go well," Oberst says. "It's quite a band."
The Lifted tour will allow Oberst to fade in and out as ringleader of a large collective in the hopes that his audience, as well as the media, will accept his reluctant presence as frontman and appreciate Bright Eyes as a broader entity. "I wish people would recognize the songs and the music, " Oberst laments. "What I'm asking for is, I guess, impossible. I wish people would just be into the music and not really care what I'm about or whatever and let the music speak for itself."