Today Bright Eyes’s Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground turns ten years old, but lyrically it hasn’t lost its acidic touches. Conor Oberst’s point of view has been famously known for being on the verge of being too personal to bear, too painful to endure. Yet while he’s written many embittered songs, he’s never been in touch with or conveyed his anger as deeply and closely as he has on Lifted. It is a protest album, a “fuck you” album, and the sound of a boy refusing to grow up. It’s Oberst proudly stealing a bullhorn to shout at the powers that be -- presidents, teachers, family, and even Oberst himself aren’t spared.
If Fevers and Mirrors was Bright Eyes reliving the heartbreak of young relationships and leaving a small town behind for a bigger and better world, then Lifted is him realizing the world is no different a place – and in many ways, it’s much, much worse. Here are the top ten lyrics that epitomize Lifted Or The Story Is In the Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground.
10. “Well, my teachers, they built this retaining wall of memory, all those multiple choices, I answered so quickly / And got my grades back, and forgot just as easily / But at least I got an “A”, and so I don't have them to blame.” – Bright Eyes, “Lets Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And To Be Loved)” Lyrics
The mention of the "A" is sarcastic and bitter; it’s a symbol of meaninglessness. Oberst is pissed off because he believes he was thrown into the real world only to realize that everything he learned in school is completely useless to functioning as an adult. So, who’s to blame for this? Teachers? Parents? Presidents? Ourselves? Oberst is cornering everyone, daring them to rationalize their behavior.
9. “And your eyes must do some raining if you're ever gonna grow / When crying don't help, you can't compose yourself / It's best to compose a poem, an honest verse of longing / Or a simple song of hope.” – Bright Eyes, “Bowl of Oranges” Lyrics
Conor Oberst rarely eschews subtlety, but on this lighthearted country-tinged track (the most positive track of the album) he gives it to us straight in a self-reflexive verse. The speaker is mature, helpful, and supportive as he offers advice on how to grow out of pain and anguish. He’s even playful as he describes this process as eyes doing some “raining”.
8. “The picture's far too big to look at, kid / Your eyes won't open wide enough, and you're constantly surrounded by the swirling stream of what is and what was / Well, we've all made our predictions, but the truth still isn't out / but if you want to see the future / go and stare into a cloud” – Bright Eyes, “The Big Picture” Lyrics
“The Big Picture” may in fact be Oberst’s “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” — a vitriolic attack on teachers, parents, presidents, and everyone with a pulse who discouraged him from dreaming big. The picture we are shown here is a kid in a small town surrounded by religiosity, false claims of truth, alienation, absentminded authority figures, and a constant stream of unwanted advice that leaves that kid with nothing but a feeling of overwhelming loneliness and a lifetime of burying his head, or to quote Oberst, staring “into a cloud”.
7. “And you think I need some discipline well, I've had my share / I've been sent to my room, I've been sat in a chair / And I held my tongue, I didn't plug my ears / No, I got a good talking to.” – Bright Eyes, “Don’t Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come” Lyrics
The meaning behind these lyrics is parallel to what Matt Damon told Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting when asked why he chose to be beaten with a pipe: “Because fuck him, that’s why!” “Don’t Know When…” is the dark core of this album. Oberst, in a move of passive-aggressiveness, uses the authority figure’s own language to show the damage done by these types of figures. We can feel it when he tells us, “I got a good talking to”.
6. “It's the course of history, your position in line / You're just a piece of the puzzle, so I think you'd better find your place / And don't go blaming your knowledge on some fruit you ate!” – Bright Eyes, “The Big Picture” Lyrics
This lyric is the sharpest attack within a song that is, as a whole, a thesis against an entire population of figures who raised us on an old or unchallenged ideology. The real beauty is his wit and ability to go after the jugular in such a quick fashion, all of which lies in the last line of this verse, a seething attack against religious ignorance: “Don’t go blaming your knowledge on some fruit you ate!”
5. “I want a lover I don't have to love, I want a girl who's too sad to give a fuck / Where's the kid with the chemicals? / I thought he said to meet him here, but I'm not sure / I've got the money, if you've got the time / You said, ‘It feels good’, I said ‘I'll give it a try’” – Bright Eyes, “Lover I Don’t Have To Love” Lyrics.
Here is Oberst’s anti-love anthem. What’s most ironic about these lyrics is that he sings these words with absolute pride, as opposed to the other pleas on Lifted in which he regrettably or morosely admits to hurting someone. Here he takes on a speaker who sincerely believes in what he’s saying. He loves it. In many ways he is the kid with the chemicals; lost in a haze of money, time, drugs, irresponsibility, and ravaging sex that is infused with everything…but love.
4. “You said, ‘Go explore those other women, the geography of their bodies/ But there's just one map you'll need / You're a boomerang, you'll see, you will return to me.’” – Bright Eyes, “You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will.” Lyrics
Oberst sings this one with wispy tenderness wrapped in lover’s regret. Like most of his songs he sneaks in dialogue and clever wordplay, using “geography of their bodies” as a nice way to say, “I want to sleep with other people”. The speaker’s counterpart is smarter than him, for sure, because she know his curiosity, his doubt, his interests in exploring other women’s “geography” is fleeting; his predictability will lead him back to her, for better or for worse, like a boomerang.
3. “I love their love and I am thankful that someone actually receives the prize that was promised / By all those fairy tales that drugged us / And still do me, I'm sick, lonely / No laurel tree, just green envy / Will my number come up eventually? / Like love's some kind of lottery where you scratch and see what's underneath / It's sorry, just one cherry, I'll play again, get lucky.” – Bright Eyes, “Waste of Paint” Lyrics
This particular verse in Oberst’s Dylanesque folk ballad criticizes society's idealized version of love by referring to it as a “prize” and “fairytales that drugged us”. He furthers this by wittingly describing the search for love using terminology usually reserved for lottery tickets, magic eight balls and slot machines. He speaks for the voices of society that haven't helped him so much as they’ve told him that the only way to be happy is to “get lucky”.
2. “Laura, you were the saddest song in the shape of a woman / Yeah, I thought you were beautiful, but I wept with your movements / But I hope that you're laughing now from that place on the carpet, where we shared a sleeping bag in your sister's apartment.” – Bright Eyes, “Laura Laurent” Lyrics
This is romance mixed with diary-like lyricism: so specific that you can’t help but feel you’re witnessing the scenario being described. Oberst understands that the specifics of an event, used correctly, can be the most telling part of an event. There are commuting trains, penetrating eyes, sore throats, and sleeping bags you have to share with her because there wasn’t a spare bed in her sister’s apartment, which is fine because that moment was all you ever wanted and it will live with you forever even if the relationship will not.
1. “Well the future's got me worried, such awful thoughts / My head's a carousel of pictures, the spinning never stops / I just want someone to walk in front, and I'll follow the leader.” – Bright Eyes, “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” Lyrics
The opening lines of the wistful and tender track involve a schoolboy afraid of growing up, but not yet cynical. His references to “follow the leader”, and later “hiding under the covers” take us back to a time when fear was just as heavy but more manageable. The carousel imagery encapsulates the song’s sense of childlike wonder. It’s nice to think, as the lyrics propose here, that whenever life gets too overwhelming, when “the spinning never stops”, we have the ability to go back to an easier time. Ironically, it’s something that can help us move forward.
Check out all of the lyrics to Bright Eyes’ Lifted… on Stereo IQ:
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