When you hear the music press mention the words "wunderkind" or "musical prodigy" every time they write about a certain artist, it's easy to roll your eyes and imagine all sorts of introspective, angst-filled compositions being made by a youngster too inexperienced with the world to make really good music. You see the latest album from said wunderkind saddled with a grandiose title like "Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground", and it's even easier to want to write him off. The last straw might be the self-indulgently long track lengths, which average over five and a half minutesthe first and last tracks alone combine for over 18 minutes.
Conor Oberst is just such a prodigy, a 22 year old native of Omaha, Nebrask, who has been releasing records since he was 14, and his latest effot, "Lifted", is just such an album. Bright Eyes is his main project, but he is also involved with groups like Cursive and The Good Life. Although Bright Eyes is composed of a growing number of musicians, Oberst remains its heart and soul, writing all the music and lyrics and even contributing to production duties and string arrangements.
The red flags mentioned in the first paragraph might be enough to keep you from taking a chance on this record, but anyone who picked up his acerbic, brilliant indie rock album with Los Desaparecidos earlier this year ("Read Music Speak Spanish") wouldn't miss the opportunity to see what other tricks Oberst has up his sleeve. And despite a few duds, most listeners who found something to appreciate on his earlier rock offering will find plenty to love on "Lifted".
Bright Eyes has already released two full length albums and several EPs and established an Elephant 6-style bedroom pop sound that relies heavily on Oberst's acoustic guitar and introspective lyrics. There is some of that style of songwriting still present on "Lifted" (most notably on tracks like "The Big Picture" and "Waste of Paint", both of which would sound at home in a coffeehouse on amateur night), but Oberst is stretching his wings and expanding the horizons of his primary songwriting outlet.
This is probably due in equal parts to his growing personal maturity and his experiences collaborating with acts like Olivia Tremor Control and Son, Ambulance, not to mention his foray into the world of rock with Los Desaparecidos. Orchestral elements are frequently used on this record, and Oberst seems willing to play around with musical styles from the waltz ("False Advertsing") to country ("Make War", "Laura Laurent") to lo-fi electronica ("Lover I Don't Have to Love").
In general, though, the album is characterized by introspective homemade pop along the lines of Belle & Sebastian, Elliot Smith, or Ben Lee, mixed with the Cure's tortured angst and the Smiths' literary bent. Standout tracks in this vein include the quizzically titled "You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will.", a relatively short three and a half minute track that builds to a chorus for most of the song and then ends almost as soon as we get the climax, leaving you dying for more; "Bowl of Oranges", an irrepressably upbeat singalong that will have you tapping your toes and pondering the meaning of life; and "Nothing Gets Crossed Out", chronicling wasted days where nothing gets done while remembering old friends.
There is no good way to describe the tone of this album, but after you listen to it a few times, you realize that there is a remarkably consistent core to these songs that threads its way through the disparate styles. It's a big, meandering mess of an album, one about which you'll almost certainly find something to hate the first time you listen to it. But it rewards you later: you don't just get used to some of the stuff that was originally annoying, you come to love it.
It's too obvious to say that this album grows on you; rather, it infects you, and before you know it, you're finding it hard to listen to anything else. On its own, this record is not as solid as other releases this year like Wilco's "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot" or the Flaming Lips' "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots", but taken in concert with Oberst's other release with Los Desaparecidos, "Lifted" makes quite a case for Obest as artist of the year.