On August 13, 2002, Saddle Creek Records released the third full-length album by Bright Eyes: Lifted Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground. Conor Oberst — the band’s sole constant member, songwriter, guitarist, vocalist — was 22 years old at the time. At that point, he’d been releasing music for eight years. First, it was as a 14-year-old with a four-track recorder holed-up in his parent’s Nebraska basement; his debut tape, Water, was funded by his older brother, who got together enough cash to get it pressed and decided to say it was coming out on something called Lumberjack Records, which eventually turned into Saddle Creek. Then Oberst started Commander Venus, his angsty high school punk band who toured on their summer vacations; eventually he became Bright Eyes, when in 1998, he released A Collection of Songs Written And Recorded 1995-1997, followed by his two first records, Letting Off The Happiness (1998) and Fevers And Mirrors (2000).
Fans who’d been following Bright Eyes since the beginning were most likely surprised by the third album’s expansive nature. Oberst had been making music for a long time before 2002, and none of it sounded anything like Lifted. Those squeaky, minimal, lo-fi albums were dearly loved mostly for the persona and the poetry of it all.
Lifted, though, was like an orchestra full of strings and horns and mandolins and glockenspiels. The songs sounded like pop songs and country songs and ’90s college-radio songs. Most of these songs still had no hooks or choruses, but it was Oberst’s most melodic songwriting to date. The songs on Lifted were notably less self-indulgent than those on his previous albums; some felt almost celebratory. There used to be elements of a fierce punky shriek in his basement tapes, and so much of that was gone. Lifted was more pleasant. It was more artful.
Oberst didn’t make Lifted alone. With some help from his hometown pal, budding producer Mike Mogis, and 20 of his closest friends — a crew of other Nebraskan musicians who made up their community in the Omaha music scene — Bright Eyes hit Presto! Studios in Lincoln, Nebraska from December 2001 to January 2002.
“It’s the most enormous production I’ve worked on as far as arrangement and scope,” a 22-year-old Oberst told Omaha Weekly in 2002. As that story tells it, Oberst was nervous and wearing all black, in an Omaha coffeeshop, just off tour with his very-political side-project punk-band Desaparecidos (who just reunited last week). He was days away from leaving on the Lifted tour. “I demoed the record twice,” he said. “I recorded the songs once in Athens and then did a demo here, and each time fleshed out the songs a little more, and kind of came out with the parts I thought would be good. Both Andy and Mike took my ideas and ran with them.”
The resultant 73-minutes-and-8-seconds of music was a total career shift for the band. Within the first two weeks of Lifted’s release, it sold more than 13,000 copies; to date, it has sold more than 250,000. Within the first two weeks of its release, Lifted ended up on Billboard Top 200, and CMJ’s top 10 — a first for Bright Eyes, and a first for Saddle Creek. Rolling Stone called it one of the best albums of 2002, ranking it at No. 4 in its year-end list. Spin gave it a score of 8 out of 10.
Freshman year of college I took a class at Boston University on Bob Dylan’s lyrics. (“Writing And Research On Dylan’s Lyrics.” I wrote my final paper comparing Oberst and Dylan’s respective songcrafts.) In one of the many articles read for that class, I learned that “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was actually composed of lines that represented entire songs. “Every line in it is actually the start of a whole song,” Dylan said to Rolling Stone in 1963. “But when I wrote it, I thought I wouldn’t have enough time alive to write all those songs, so I put all I could into this one.”
In many ways, Lifted sort has that feel — that Oberst put all of his ideas about the sort of music he’d eventually want to make into this one record. If the arc of Oberst’s musical career is ever turned into a book, Lifted could essentially be the table of contents. “Make War” was certainly a sign of the sorts of songs Oberst would eventually make on 2005′s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning; “Lover I Don’t Have To Love” feels like something that could have appeared on ’05′s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. “False Advertising” sounds like something that could appear on Oberst’s 2008 self-titled debut solo album, while “The Big Picture” and all its religious criticism could have appeared on 2011′s The People’s Key. “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves” was a sign of his forthcoming political tendencies (since 2003, Oberst has fought against Clear Channel, supported PETA, played rallies for Obama, and boycotted Arizona for its anti-immigration bill).
From its first track, Lifted is notably more optimistic than any of Bright Eyes’ past albums. “There was no premeditation,” Oberst told Omaha Weekly 10 years ago. “I just started writing songs and they weren’t like the old ones. It’s nothing I thought about ahead of time, it just ended up not being so dark. I still think there are some sad moments on the record.”
Lifted opens with “The Big Picture.” “It’s cool if you keep quiet, but I like singing,” sings Oberst. “So I’ll be holding my note and stomping and strumming and feeling so very lucky.” Conor Oberst feeling lucky? Lyrically, this isn’t Fevers And Mirrors anymore. Musically though, this is the one track here that sounds like it could be: full of echo, with the home-recorded feel of his previous work. It has the uneasy nervousness that once defined Bright Eyes. The guitar is barely there, but over a few plucks and strums, Oberst’s voice shakes through a discussion of religion: “Don’t go blaming your knowledge/on some fruit you ate,” he sings. Religion eventually surfaces as a major theme on Lifted (“I have no faith, but it’s all I want/to be loved, and believe in my soul,” he sings later on “Waste Of Paint”).
“The Big Picture” is followed by “Method Acting” and “False Advertising,” two songs that find Oberst questioning his own sincerity, presenting them so early in the record almost as a disclaimer. Oberst doesn’t want to come off as a fake — he’s not trying to fool anyone into thinking his songs are all about himself.
“I try to use whatever tools possible to convey whatever you want to call the truth of the song,” Oberst told Omaha Weekly in 2002. “I’m willing to draw from my own life, or craft something to achieve something that’s real at the end of the song. That’s just what writing is. Anyone who gets hung up on if a song applies to my life or is something I created has missed the point.”
Method acting is a practice that actors use to get into character — a sort of emotional and psychological training that actors put themselves though. Throughout his discography, Oberst carefully alternates his perspectives — switching between role of strummy introspective confessor to a smart, socially critical observer who creates characters, summing up cultural sentiments in his ways of dealing with futility, frustration, indecision, uncertainty; the coming-of-age gasps for breaths of meaning in the world; the spiritual crisis of being a 20-something.
On Lifted, for the first time, he openly discusses this conflict. There’s almost something meta about him talking about his own authenticity and sincerity within the context of an album where he constructs characters and plays parts.
From the beginning of “Method,” his voice sounds clearer and more confident than ever — after a few bars of just Oberst’s voice and guitar, huge drums come in, then eventually the keys, the meandering mandolin, the layered guitars and bass, the ever-present harmonies, the horns, glockenspiel. “There is no beginning to the story/a bookshelf sinks into the sand,” Oberst sings in the first line, referring to his previous release, the There Is No Beginning To The Story EP.
“False Advertising,” the album’s third song, is a chilling waltz where these ideas of authenticity and sincerity are tackled most blatantly: “On a string I was held/the way I move, can you tell?/My actions are orchestrated from above,” he sings. “On a stage I was pushed/with my sorrow well-rehearsed … If I could act like this was my real life, and not some cage where I’ve been placed/then I could tell you the truth like I used to and not be afraid of sounding fake.”
Lifted isn’t entirely a reflection of Oberst’s grappling with self-representation. After two songs about singing, we finally get one of those songs he’s been singing about. “You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will” feels like a mental breather, a three-and-a-half-minute love song of mostly cutesy, quotable couplets (“You are the reoccurring kind/you never really leave my mind”) over basic acoustic strumming. As light and simple as it all is, it’s one of the album’s definitive moments. The pace picks up on “Lover I Don’t Have To Love” — a moody, overly dramatic recollection of a wasted night spent following someone home after a show, on tour. There’s more of that self-consciousness: “Bad actors with bad habits, some sad singers they just play tragic.”
“Bowl Of Oranges” is the quintessential Lifted track in its bittersweet optimism about something so dark — the idea that we are all irrevocably alone. It’s a beautiful song full of happy harmonies, shuffling percussion, playful glock and key melodies leading into the narrator’s wide-eyed realization: “That’s how I learned the lesson/that everyone’s alone/and your eyes must do some raining/if you’re ever gonna grow.” Ultimately though, despite the optimism, the track ends with a solid minute of emptiness, lonely piano keys and lost guitar plucks, washed over by a barely audible drone. Eventually they all just blend into each other and melt away.
“Don’t Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come” offers a moment of silence, as Oberst talks religion, death, guns, love, truthfulness. “Is it true what I heard about the Son of God?” the narrator wonders. “Did he come to save? Did he come at all?” The vocals are up front in the mix; some distant guitars and keys wander in the background. On tour following the release of the record, Oberst added in a verse: “…but it’s hard to ignore the news reports/they say we must defend ourselves, fight on foreign soil/against the infidels … with the oil wells/God saves gas prices no no I mean/God saves texas family fortunes … “
In a New York Times profile in 2002, Oberst was asked why he would substitute these new lines, and he replied that the additional verse was in the original draft of the song, but he cut it, worried it might sound “preachy.” He brought it back for the tour, which was coinciding with the Congressional debate on Iraq. ”I thought I would never sing political songs, but now it seems like the only thing worth singing about,” Oberst said. ”It’s difficult to think about anything besides the war.”
“Nothing Gets Crossed Out,” on the other hand, is a reminder that Oberst wrote this album in his very early 20s. From the coming-of-age insecurities (“The future has got me worried, such awful thoughts/My head is a cacarouse of pictures/the spinning never stops”) to self-doubt about being unproductive (“It’s too hard to focus through all this doubt/I keep making these ’to do’ lists but nothing gets crossed out”) to the simple desire to just binge drink with friends. “Tim, I heard your album and its better than good/When you get off tour I think we should hang and black out together,” he sings, most probably about Tim Kasher of Cursive, before reminiscing and feeling sentimental about “all those summers singing, drinking, laughing, wasted out time.”
The album goes on to present some of the best songs in Bright Eyes’ discography: “Make War,” “Waste Of Paint,” “From A Balance Beam,” and of course, the most epic of endings: “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And Be Loved).”
“Can I get a god damn timpani roll?” Conor sings at the beginning of the song, soon overtaken by shouts, timpani, organ solos. It was a sign of political songs to come, making criticisms of higher education, corporate media, public action figures, “cowboy presidents.” At the time, it was one of the biggest productions ever heard from Bright Eyes.
As a teenager, I was totally hooked on Lifted and Bright Eyes in general. In 7th grade — in 2002 — I saw the lyrics to “Lover I Don’t Have To Love” written on a classmate’s AIM profile and thought they sounded cool, so I copied-and-pasted them into a search engine, and discovered Bright Eyes. From there, I typed “Bright Eyes” into Napster and downloaded whatever popped up. The band was angsty as hell, and like thousands of other teenagers around the world, I was an instant fan.
A few months before releasing Lifted, Saddle Creek had released Bright Eyes’ There Is No Beginning To The Story EP. Ironically, this EP really is the beginning of Lifted’s story. In many ways, the EP was like a warning shot, announcing the changes ahead. It’s an underrated Bright Eyes release with much of the same resonant production qualities and compelling songwriting Oberst would employ on Lifted. “There are stories in the soil/Loose leaves cover the ground/there’s volumes in the forest no one reads out loud,” Oberst sings on No Beginning’s “Loose Leaves,” perhaps where the latter haf of Lifted’s title originated.
Conor Oberst was 22 years old when he released Lifted, and at some point during his tour in support of the album, he turned 23. During the course of writing this article, I looked up every interview I could find online given by Oberst as a 22-to-23-year-old. As a 23-year-old myself, right now, this has been an interesting practice — looking back at old interviews to see where one of my favorite musicians was at my age. And the songs are even more relatable now. Oberst has changed a great deal over the last 10 years — he’s left Nebraska for New York, released four more incredible albums with Bright Eyes, ended Bright Eyes, made solo albums, played with the super-group Monsters of Folk — and I’ve changed too. I feel like I grew up watching him grow up, and I’ve grown up with him.
In 2002, Filter magazine interviewed Oberst. They asked him, “Where do you see yourself in 10 years?”
“Hopefully, I’ll still be doing music or something creative,” he responded. “Going back to school has crossed my mind. There are certain classes or subjects I’d be into taking, but obviously there is a lot of total bullshit in college I’d like to skip. I don’t really ever see myself getting a degree to use for an occupation, unless it was teaching. My mom is the principal of an elementary school. It seems like a pretty decent way to live your life.”
I personally can’t imagine the past 10 years of my life without Bright Eyes. Through my angsty teenage MySpace years, my 18-year-old Bob Dylan phase, my fuck-the-man sophomore-year politics, and now these post-college freak-outs — there’s always been a Bright Eyes song to sing along to. And the ones that make up Lifted have been some of the most beautiful and compelling parts of the soundtrack.