Why is Conor Oberst so desperate to reveal everything about himself-except his name? The 22-year-old Mr. Oberst, who hails from Omaha, Neb., and records under the stage moniker Bright Eyes, has always come across musically as something of a changeling-the High Plains Drifter of singer/songwriters. But Bright Eyes also seems to be sending the message that his art-and not his personality-holds the key to his soul.
Mr. Oberst is in quite a confessional mood on his latest, somewhat grandly titled CD, Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (Saddle Creek).
But don’t let that smudge of pretension get in the way. On Lifted , Mr. Oberst–as–Bright Eyes enlists the listener to become his shrink as the singer/songwriter examines himself vividly and ruthlessly, spilling his guts across 13 songs that total 73 minutes of music. It’s an incredibly ballsy album: naked and real, uneven at times, but completely honest. It’s also his best, most emotionally sophisticated and tuneful album to date. Mr. Oberst is an authentic Ryan Adams, with the kind of passion and purpose that hasn’t been applied by a fashion stylist.
Perhaps because Mr. Oberst, given his age, is still struggling to find his identity, the subject looms large on Lifted . In “False Advertising,” one of the finer cuts from the album, Bright Eyes sings: “And I know what must change / Fuck my face / Fuck my name, / They are brief and false advertisements …. “
Lifted is Bright Eyes’ fourth full-length record (not counting a number of EP’s he’s released over the years), and the artistic distance he’s come is notable. Earlier records veered toward the punkish, and though traces of that genre persist-most notably in Mr. Oberst’s other project, Los Desaparecidos-he seems to have settled into a folk-rockish singer/songwriter mode.
On Lifted , Mr. Oberst’s melodic skills are on full display as he shifts gracefully through a spectrum of styles, from pseudo–talking blues to waltzes. He’s managed to curtail the metaphorical excess of his earlier albums, while once again demonstrating that he is one of the most literate and witty songwriters of his generation.
Lifted is a coming-of-age song cycle that deals with the moment at which love can no longer be idealized; that moment when the innocence of youth becomes hardened by the complacency and cynicism of adulthood. It’s a well-trodden path, full of fragrant, sophomoric soap opera, but Mr. Oberst finds fresh material by essentially flaying himself alive. On the stark “Waste of Paint,” Mr. Oberst seems to sing from a street puddle, nearly shouting the lines “Like love is some kind of lottery / Where you scratch and see what’s underneath / It’s ‘Sorry,’ just one cherry / ‘Play again’ / Get lucky.”
Throughout the album, Mr. Oberst, who sounds like a more fragile version of the Cure’s Robert Smith, inhabits his lyrics, communicating his emotional distress with whispers and bellows and wavers and cracks in his voice.
The best song of the album-and arguably of his career-is “You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will.” And as its Raymond Carver–esque title suggests, it surgically cuts to the very heart of the matter, which is the end of a relationship in which the woman seems to have grown up faster than the singer. “You say that I treat you like a book on a shelf,” he sings nearly matter-of-factly, “I don’t take you out that often / Because I know that I completed you / And that is why you are here / That is the reason you stay here / How awful that must feel.” The metaphor-somewhat clunky though it may be-is beautifully attenuated. He comes back to it in one of the final verses, singing “It took so long to figure out / What this book has been about.”
The final verse is the punch in the gut-the relationship isn’t dead, just dying: “Now I write when I’m away / letters that you’ll never read / You said to go explore those other women / the geography of their bodies / but there’s just one map you’ll need / You are a boomerang, you’ll see / You will return to me.”
Listening to Mr. Oberst is like listening to Bob Dylan in the mid-60′s: What he’s saying is fundamentally altered by the way he says it. He’s his only interpreter, and a consummate one at that. When he looks back-and sometimes it can be nauseating when someone so young adopts that role-we are interested, because his desire is not to regress, but rather to push into a clearing.
Lifted isn’t perfect, even if certain songs are damn close. “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” with its sharply grating drum loop, is nearly unbearable and makes you reach for the skip button. And the final cut, “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves,” falls flat on its face once Mr. Oberst starts to rail against the mass media. He’s too fine a student of the soul to waste his words on such tired targets. Mr. Oberst gives-and shows you-everything that’s in him; he practically turns himself inside-out on this album. So take the good with the bad; forgive his excesses even as you embrace them. It’s the kind of contradiction Bright Eyes would appreciate, and Mr. Oberst would despise.