We all have our own predispositions, little tendencies that lead us in certain directions over others. As such, it can be awfully difficult to follow those predispositions down a path that leads us to anything we haven't seen before. It's a matter of human nature that we tend to prefer places in which we are comfortable, places we've been before that won't poke us or prod us in ways that push the dusty, unused buttons contained in our sheltered psyches.
This tends to be a problem for a music listener such as myself.
It's the reason I own 28 Front Line Assembly CDs, 24 U2 CDs, 17 Skinny Puppy CDs, and 1 Beatles (double) CD, which doesn't really count because it's Anthology 1, something I inherited (read: took) from my parents' collection. It's not that I have anything against the Beatles; on the contrary, I've loved an awful lot of what I've heard from them, and I've actually disliked very little. The shivers that "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" gave me the first time I heard it should have been enough to prompt me to pick up The White Album. But they weren't, probably because some random electro-industrial release that sounds like at least five other albums in my collection was just begging to be picked up instead. Why? The best explanation I can offer is that I know what I'm getting into with an album like that, and I may not love it, but at least I can be pretty sure I'm not going to hate it.
What a way to live.
This is why I'm thankful for things like MattA75's "I'll Show You Mine If You Show Me Yours" writeoff for which this review is a submission, a writeoff that in the past has pummeled home the virtues of the Beach Boys and the Black Keys, and now, in exchange for introducing Foxy_Shy to the wondrous grandeur that is The Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, I get to immerse myself for the first time in the cup-runneth-over brand of emotional catharsis that is Bright Eyes. Given my choice of all the Bright Eyes albums, I decided to pick up LIFTED or The Story Is In the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, as people seem to like it, and it had lots of impressive sounding quotes on a sticker attached to it at the local Media Play.
My listening experience did not start well.
"The Big Picture" is eight minutes and forty-two seconds long, about three minutes of it is random recorded dialogue, and the rest is vaguely stream-of-consciousness half-sung lyrics over sparse, nearly inaudible guitar as recorded by a cheap, hand-held tape recorder. The effect is not one of atmosphere or intimacy, but of a frustrating listen to a poorly mixed artsier-than-thou street performer. Even after listening to the rest of the album, and theoretically "getting it", "The Big Picture" still eludes me, as Conor Oberst's transitions from whispers to powerful emoting to flat-out yelling sound forced at best, supremely annoying at worst. It's a terrible way to start an album, especially one that has as many brilliant moments as this one.
Those brilliant moments begin with "Method Acting", which sees everything that sounded so contrived in the first track put to good use as saliva-drenched vigor over a rapidly shuffling beat and slide guitars that would make the song sound country if it weren't so dark and alterna-ey. Plus, how many 22-year-olds do you know who've written lyrics like this:
I've sat too long in my silence
I've grown too old in my pain
To shed this skin, be born again,
Oh it starts with an ending...
"False Advertising" is the first thing on the album that could accurately be labeled as absolutely gorgeous, as Oberst employs an orchestra and a bit of a choir to allow the full development of his bigger-than-his-body thoughts in a bigger-than-it-should-be waltz. One clever stop-start and a bitter indictment of the psychological perils of an artist in the record industry later, we have one hell of a lovely little song. The laboriously-titled "You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will." revives the alt-country feel, and it's relatively innocuous for it, as it sorta says its thing, pleading and pleasing, and leaves. "Lover I Don't Have to Love", now, we travel into the dark, seedy part of town to tell a tale of what sounds like a tryst with a certain lady of the night....beautifully conveying an emptiness and desperation that could lead someone to the depths of depravity. All of this over a solid bass-infused beat and classical-inspired minor-key keyboard work. Truly brilliant.
I want a lover I don't have to love
I want a girl who's too sad to give a f*ck...
"Bowl of Oranges" borrows the shuffle from "Method Acting" and infuses it with a sense of whimsy missing from the album thus far. Piano provides pleasant background accents, and some horns show up, and it's actually kind of fun! Seriously! Fun! Only 25 minutes into the album! Sure it devolves into an epilogue of mournful guitars and keyboards, but that's more a transition into "Don't Know When But a Day is Gonna Come" than anything. That song's more sorrow and pain, centered around a fingered acoustic guitar, but eventually incorporating big strings and pianos and other, uh, "epic-sounding" instruments. Oberst's final sentiment of NO ONE UNDERSTANDS! is a bit overwrought, but otherwise it's a lovely slice of broken faith in the world. Next to that song, "Nothing Gets Crossed Out" is delightfully understated, with some lovely female counterpoint-harmonies floating along the top. "Make War" is a pleasant country song that actually gives some happy-sounding music to its inner misery.
Refreshingly clean strummed guitars give "Waste of Paint" a sort of folk-song charm, even as Oberst tries to fit too many words into each line of the verse. Still, six-and-a-half minutes of just Oberst and a guitar is fairly tedious, especially as Oberst's voice gets harder and harder to listen to as the emotional resonance of the lyrics increases. "From a Balance Beam" adds some much-missed keyboards and drums, and it's at this point I realize just how much this album reminds me of an emo-fied version of Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot--rather than looking out at the world as that album did, Oberst's eyes are inverted inward, looking only at his downtrodden psyche. "Laura Laurent" confirms this sentiment as a barroom lament turns into yet another sweeping epic.
Finally, after an introduction stating Here's a godd*mn song! For you godd*mn people!, "Let's Not Sh!t Ourselves" ambles along clumsily for eight minutes before devolving into another couple minutes of pointless noise. Whee!
LIFTED or The Story is In the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground is not really to my taste. It's a little too angsty, a little too emo, a little too artsy, but those would all be fine if Oberst's insecurities didn't manifest themselves in a sort of knowing, smirking self-awareness that just grates on my nerves a bit. As he puts it: I do not read the reviews / No I am not singing for you. He reaches for complex emotions, but still seems trapped in an endless cycle of teenage melodrama. Still, musically, this is an album chock full of big moments and big flourishes, an album on which not one song sounds much like any other song, an album that simply does not let up in grandeur or its spirit of experimentation. This is the sound of a man who's willing to try something and risk failure, knowing that the payoff for success will be far greater than if he played it safe. Kind of like someone I wish I could be when trying to find decent new music.
I'll probably not buy any more Bright Eyes in the near future, but I deeply thank Foxy_Shy for getting me off my @$$ to hear this one. If nothing else, it was worth it for the experience.
How grateful I was then
To be part of the mystery
To love and to be loved
Lets just hope that is enough
As mentioned above, this review is a (VERY LATE) submission to the fourth edition of the great MattA75's "I'll Show You Mine if You Show Me Yours" writeoff, in which writers are paired up for the purpose of introducing the other to an album they might not have checked out without the proper prodding. Check out his profile for links to more happy-fun entries.