Burdens are LIFTED from me. That’s my voice rising!
ALBUM OF THE DECADE: Bright Eyes: Lifted: Or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
For most of us who have come of age under George W. Bush, who lived in the 90s but weren’t really thoughtful and mature in the 90s, well, this was our decade. The 2000s. We’ve lived through wars, 8 years of a Cowboy president and a recession. We were here for the rise of the Internet and the fall of the music industry. So much political unrest, chaos, depression, change. Each day was both tumultuous and boring. It was scary and fun. It was blinding with both bright possibility and dark humorless uncertainty. No music better captures the decade than Bright Eyes‘ 2002 album, “Lifted: Or, The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground.”
Yes, it was released 8 years ago. But the album spoke legions of truth to hungry ears and his withstood the weight of those years. Not even musically speaking but thematically, the songs are about living with guilt and living with fear. They’re about the desperate search for fun in the midst of death and terror. They’re about attempting to be joyous when all you want to do is scream out in anger.
Take “Method Acting,” a track shrouded in uncertainty:
It’s a shocking bit of footage viewed from a shitty TV screen. You can squint at it through snowy static to make out the meaning. And keep on stretching the antennae, hoping that it will come clear. We need some reception, a higher message, just tell us what to fear. Because I don’t know what tomorrow brings.
“False Advertising” is about being bought and sold. This album was released just a couple of years after the 90s, afterall. Being consumed by corporations was a real threat to artistic integrity. Although it’s still a threat today, artists are much less willing to care. No one is buying albums, so they have to make music somehow. That’s the popular argument, anyway.
In a hopeful twist at the end of the song, Oberst turns to his friends for strength:
And now my door, it stands open. I’m inviting everyone in. We’re gonna laugh, we’re gonna drink until the morning comes. That’s what we’re gonna do. Come on! Come on!
Musically speaking, this album was a breakthrough for indie bands and singer-songwriters alike. While Bright Eyes albums had always incorporated tapes and feedback and answering machine messages, “LIFTED” was a whole other story. Some songs were just Conor Oberst strumming an acoustic guitar in empty rooms, resulting in the most eerie hollow sounds you can imagine. But other songs utilized production like it was the main reason for doing the song at all. Mike Mogis can do wonders. Some songs have what sounds like hundreds of tracks layered on top of each other. This is definitely not LO-FI. And for good reason. It’s supposed to sound grandiose. It’s a protest album.
The live show, it should be noted, consisted of about 15 band members including multiple drummers. It was a spectacle, I-I-I mean a miracle.
The album was particularly good for drug-taking. Many songs inspired extreme physical bliss, “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” for example. The simple keyboard melody, lyrics like “your tongue in my mouth” and references to taking drugs and the deliberate bass pounding that felt like your feet hitting the ground made for a potent mixture. Not to mention the cello…
Love’s an excuse to get hurt. And to hurt. Do you like to hurt? I do. I do. Then hurt me.
There isn’t one weak song on the entire album. Each one has a different, complicated story. And each one is more difficult than the last. To hear, to absorb.
“From A Balance Beam” is the most hopeful song on the album. It’s also my favorite. Hear it below.
Pagan Kennedy wrote in her NYT Magazine cover story that fans, mostly young, were attaching themselves to Conor Oberst for the same reason that they did in the 60s with another scraggly and poetic songwriter with a penchant for pointed lyricism: Bob Dylan.
“Kids sprawl on the concrete, drape themselves on the side of the club, take up room the way only high schoolers can. Even from here you can feel the suck of their longing, the weight of the secrets that they dare confess only to Conor Oberst. Maybe years from now they’ll be known as members of the generation startled out of puberty by 9/11. Or maybe we will know these kids, or their peers, as the ones who fought in the streets of Baghdad. But one thing is clear: if any generation ever needed a new Bob Dylan, this is the one.”
Oberst has since shrugged off that comparison, and has release many, many albums. Some were great, some okay. His newest project, the supergroup Monsters of Folk, is easy in the worst possible way. But all of that matters very little. The impact of Bright Eyes is impossible to ignore or dismiss. Oberst and his Nebraska friends paved the road for countless artists who wanted more; more from life, more freedom, more music and above all else, integrity and pure love.
Bright Eyes: From A Balance Beam