Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground
omeone finally gave Conor Oberst a lollipop. Indie rock’s poster boy for wise-beyond-the-years angst has finally found something worth smiling about. His previous releases, culminating with 2000’s brooding gem, Fevers and Mirrors, were exercises in pure melodic whining, featuring tortured songs that had no room to let in optimism. On Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, though, Oberst seemingly has found the light. Enough of a light, at least, to not be so damn serious all the time.
At first, it’s the same old depression. The album opens with one of Oberst’s favorite conventions, the trailing away of a recorded conversation into a simple acoustic heart wrench. “I mean it’s cool if you keep quiet, but I like singing,“ he wails on “Big Picture,” the song constantly on the brink of collapse. It gives way to “Method Acting,” one of a handful of songs, like “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” and “Don’t Know When But a Daisy is Gonna Come,” which in mood and structure could easily fit in the dysfunctional melancholy of Fevers. Sadness, meet your maker.
But like Will Oldham and Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum, Oberst’s real raw emotion shines through as much in his fractured screech of a voice as in his lyrics. Unlike Oldham and Mangum, however, Oberst had until this point not been able to breath content into these words. He could make content sound dreary, but never the other way around. But the majority of Lifted... finds him doing exactly that, and with largely excellent results. No longer does he sound on the verge of breakdown with every aching syllable, no more pent-up jadedness---this is pure, cheerful post-orgasmic clarity. “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” absolutely exudes optimism, while “Bowl of Oranges” and “Make War” are downright chipper bar-room ditties. “So hurry up and love, to the run that you love, and blind him with your kindness,” he sings on the latter, with nothing so much as a hint of despair or sarcasm, before it ultimately descends into a sweeping full-on singalong, something not even on the radar of his earlier work.
The real joy here, indeed the cream of Oberst’s song crop to date, is the 3-song close of the album. “From a Balance Beam” is the poppiest thing he’s ever recorded, verse-chorus-verse in a concise 4-minute package, something he’s never been fully able to successfully manufacture. “Laura Laurent” is a dreamy love song, Oberst’s words floating over a woozy piano line which seems constantly ready to break into a “la la la” chant, which it finally does at the end. And the lengthy closer “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves,” is a Being There-era Wilco country pop song which masks a murky diatribe on everything from small town life to the media.
“I do not read the reviews/no I am not singing for you,” Oberst sings on “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves.“ At 22, it’s both a skeptical and rational approach for a musician who is equally lauded and second-guessed by a music press that can‘t really find out what to do with him. But the loose approach to this album (there are occasional breaks in songs which offer glimpses into the light mood of the album’s recording) and its “things suck but they may actually get better” approach, make it sound like he means it. He’s finally having a good time, and damn if any review is going to turn that smirk upside-down.
Reviewed by: Steve Lichtenstein
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01