Born in 1980 in Omaha, Nebraska, Conor Oberst has been recording since age 13, and has already released seven CDs documenting his prodigious lyricism, egregious pessimism, indiscriminate romanticism, and passionate belief that his self-inflicted darkness can be chased away, or at least held at bay, by guitars and four-track tape machines, and if that doesn’t work, he’ll go back to “drinking like the way I drank before.” He’s like that, Conor is. Long-winded, in a rush, exhaling lyric after lyric with little regard for meter, rhyme, or artistic decorum. Self-expression above all. And Lord, can this boy express himself.
Four of his records are with a mix-and-match band called Bright Eyes, one with the fine and yowling Desaparecidos, and two with his first band, Commander Venus. There are also several Bright Eyes EPs and a split album of orchestral pop with a sideman’s band, Son, Ambulance, who sound slightly less lacerated by life’s ordinary ups and downs than Oberst, and who prove that the tradition of Gilbert O’Sullivan remains alive and well in the Midwest. In short, enough music to provide a soundtrack to an entire life, which is just the impression that Oberst wants to give: his every experience and feeling documented, and you are there. This would be tedious stuff without talent, but Oberst has rare gifts. For one thing, an absolutely unerring sense of the dramatic.
His vocals are always raw, on the verge of breakdown or breakthrough; as a songwriter, he leans on pregnant pauses that explode his tunes forward and saturate his simplest acoustic strummings with a dark pageantry worthy of Joy Division, or at least Echo and the Bunnymen. His narrative voice constantly edges toward the prophetic, which is perhaps the legacy of a childhood spent in Catholic school, and certainly the cause of the usual misguided Dylan comparisons. Oberst, though, cares nothing for the blues and lacks Dylan’s studied timelessness. He is all about capturing the moment. His songs unfold as carefully planned accidents.
Lifted, or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground collects his finest accidents yet. The music is scored for guitar, banjo, dulcimer, oboe, flute, violin, cello, French horn, trumpet, trombone, vibraphone, glockenspiel, and what sounds like a gurgling bong; “Can I get a goddamn timpani roll?” Oberst asks at the start of the final song, “Let’s Not Kid Ourselves (To Love and Be Loved).” Some tracks are nothing more than scratches of guitar; others are inebriated country waltzes; one attempts a funk beat and, in the course of pondering the efficacy of desperate after-show sex, offers up the immortal line, “Your tongue in my mouth/ Trying to keep the words from coming out.”
Onstage at Irving Plaza September 20, it took a 14-piece band of multi-instrumentalists to reanimate Lifted‘s expansive arrangements. The music was ragged when it wanted to be, precise when it needed to be, with three drummers and a woodwind section that filled the air with delicate ’60s pop colors. At times, you felt you were in the room with the most ambitious and spirited band indie-rock has ever seen; at other times, it had the disarming intimacy of a high school band recital.
Bright Eyes albums are nothing if not obsessive—on two different records Oberst recalls that first kiss in attic, and the same summer rooftop party pops up more than once as well. But Lifted is different. Not a single song sounds like it was written and recorded in a closet, and while every lyric retains the air of impossibly direct confession, Oberst’s world now seems larger, populated. This may be the lesson of the other excellent album he released this year, Desaparecidos’ Read Music/Speak Spanish, where he steps to the mic fronting a guitar band and spews rage about the endless demands and compromises that the working life heaps on real people. Its lyrics jammed with shopping bags and malls and 14-hour days and SUVs, it’s a remarkable achievement for a boho who spends most of his time on a narcissistic quest for love. In the opening track Oberst imagines himself as a wage slave whose wife urges him to cut down on the coffee: “Baby, all that caffeine causes bad dreams. Where all your anxieties are released.” Seven songs later, he’s a money pig bent on building a factory the size of a country. Either way he’s stepping out of himself, giving voice to those desperate to “enroll in that middle class.” When he made Lifted, some of those voices stayed with him.
Lifted returns again and again to the idea of rapture, of being lifted above the pain and darkness of earthly life. By God, by song, by friendship, by love, by drink, by desperate after-show sex. It is a strangely religious album; every once in a while Oberst’s characters seem to have wandered in from a Flannery O’Connor story or a Walker Percy novel—whether they know it or not, they’re searching for good in a world that gives them nothing but bad. There are moments—more than a few—when the language drifts into that of a striving short story or descends into adolescent prattle about beauty and art, but I catch myself wondering at those moments why I find talk about beauty and art so very adolescent. Such is the challenge Lifted presents: the challenge of faith. It is frankly sentimental music, lost in memory, full of mistakes. Give it a chance and it will take you backward to a time when you believed in something that you don’t believe in anymore. And then, if you’re like me, when it’s over, you’ll remember you live in New York, not Nebraska, and turn on the TV.