8/13/22: Bright Eyes' "Lifted" at 20 (and Little Fish Brewing Company's Barrel-Aged Woodthrush [2021])

7:08 AM

Bright Eyes' Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground is two decades old today. This is a remarkable milestone for an incredible album that sounds as timely today as it did when I first heard it as a seventeen-year-old.

The album's my favorite piece of art. I own it on CD (not pictured below--that copy lives in my car) and three different vinyl. I also happily preordered a new pressing of the work on Wednesday, when the band announced one through their new label, Dead Oceans.

I'm dedicating this post to Lifted in celebration of Conor Oberst's, Mike Mogis', et al.'s accomplishment. I'll be breaking the album down track-by-track and doing some light reminiscing along the way. Oh, and I'll be drinking/writing about Little Fish's Barrel-Aged Woodthrush as the post goes on.

Grab a beer of your own, get Lifted playing on your preferred music streaming service (here's a link to it on SoundCloud) or start spinning your disc or record (or playing your cassette, if you're one of the lucky few) of it, and settle in for a good, long post.

Lifted opens with the second longest song on the album. The sounds of a cold car cranking to life while Oberst's guitar and voice tumble out of its speakers slowly fade and the music builds to greater clarity as the song develops. I know there are people who chastise "The Big Picture" for its length, but I'd argue that all eight minutes and forty-two seconds of its runtime are necessary for the track to accomplish its ultimate goal in setting the extraordinarily high stakes for the album. The song features Oberst's quakey voice and simple acoustic guitar, both of which move from lo-fi recordings to something with higher fidelity as the song marches forward; Mogis' expertly crafted soundscape; Jenny Lewis' haunted backing vocals accentuating Oberst's tremble; the beautiful imagery in the lyrics that single out threads that weave together the whole album; and a jarringly abrupt ending that leaves the whole song unfinished. Without its length, these puzzling pieces wouldn't develop clearly enough for the listener to begin the process of putting them each into their proper place.

After the collage comprising the end of the preceding track, we're thrust directly into the meat of "Method Acting." "There's no beginning to the story/A bookshelf sinks into the sand/And a language learned and forgot in turn/Is studied once again." The song's sharp and electric, Oberst and his guitar accompanied by Mogis' impressive multi-musicianship (over the course of the album he plays guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, pedal steel, bells, dobro, and banjo, each of these disparate instruments fitting seamlessly into the fabric of the album) are bolstered to new heights for the band by the record's drum crops--five percussionists comprising Lifted's hard-beating heart. This song sees Obert's lyrics following some of the strands that were unwound at the beginning of the album: juxtaposing life's falsehoods and the desperate search and solidifying of its truths, singing for oneself, and death (both as a definitive end and as a method of transformation).

"False Advertising" is the next song after the mournful horn finds its cadence. Its waltz is built with sorrowful, operatic strings, the drum corp, a small chamber choir, and the crackle of a stylus over a dusty record. The song's a well-rehearsed act, from the beautiful musicianship of its performers to the ham-fisted "mistake" of stopping the tape in the middle of recording. "In the house by myself/I hear the ice start to melt/And I watch the rooftops weep for the sunlight." The lyrics dance with ideas of an immortal human soul, true identity, and sacredness of friendship.

This is followed by "You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will," a haywire love song that was an early contender teenage John's favorite Lifted track. The piece follows the example of the album's opener in that it begins in murky fidelity before achieving sonic clarity near its completion. It's about a threatened and threatening relationship, where one participant is on the verge of succumbing to alcoholism. The gravity of that was lost on teenage me.

"Lover I Don't Have to Love" was the first Bright Eyes I heard. I was fourteen at the time and couldn't stand it. The overwrought melancholy of its lyrics, coupled with Oberst's prominent and repetitious Rhodes, made me queasy. By the time the full album was in my hands, it made more sense. Musically, this is Lifted's black sheep but the full work would be incomplete without it. "Lover"'s a wounded ballad that skillfully follows its proceeding track, a strained story of remorseful and drunken lust. A strange and powerful choice for Lifted's only single.

The sixth song on the album, "Bowl of Oranges," strikes me as something that would be a more logical choice for a single. It's a pleasant piano jaunt that serves as a brief pause in a depressive episode, that glorious moment when the sky clears and you see the good in yourself again:"...your eyes must do some rainin'/If you're ever gonna grow." We're all pieces in this wonderful puzzle of a world, and we each have our place in it. Mogis's bells are bright accents to the track's music.

Before the song ends, however, the clouds retake the sky and the dull darkness spills into "Don't Know When But a Day Is Gonna Come." Here, the listener finds Oberst grappling with religion. "...there is no truth/There is only you and what you make the truth." He takes up the dropped line of string regarding the human soul: Does it exist? Is our being and meaning owed to it, or do we make ourselves through our relationships? The track's triple crescendos are epiphanies of horns, drums, and strings found via wandering and festering guitar and piano.

Now that we're beyond Lifted's midpoint, I'll break from the music long enough to crack into Little Fish's (see this post from two years ago if you want to know a little about the brewery) wine barrel-aged farmhouse ale.

BA Woodthrush is the product of aging the brewery's base farmhouse Woodthrush (malty and zesty) in red wine barrels for months on end. At 6.7% ABV, it's funky, it's oaky, and it's sour.

The nose is oak and funk with a backbone of subtle red wine earthiness. It's nearly puckeringly sour. I do find some mild malt character--a crisp biscuity quality--but it's really only mild. The bouquet's pleasant and refreshing. Purrl wouldn't get close enough to my open bottle to provide any input.

She might look like she's enjoying it but she too far back to get any sort of real whiff.

There's a definite dry wine bitterness in the ale's flavor profile that carries into its delightfully searing finish. Before that, however, there's a wild and funky sourness from whatever bacteria and yeast the ale plucked from its wine barrel aging, there's warm and woody oak, and there's a hint of that maltiness I noted above.

In my glass BA Woodthrush holds a quickly dissipating, light sandy head that's tight lacing's punctuated by an occasional oblong bubble. The ale's body is a faint opaque copper.

Woodthrush's thicker than I would've expected. It's a full-bodied ale, which belies the sourness it exudes.

Thus concludes our intermission. We're now back to Lifted with "Nothing Gets Crossed Out," a song riddled with anxiety. Our narrator's fearful of the future and the unknowns it holds. Oberst's voice is monotonous and indifferent. His delivery is compounded by Andy LeMaster's backing vocals, providing a powerful duet to the band's frontman. The snares are driving, the easy-strummed guitar leaves room for Mogis and the album's other musicians to showcase their chops, and the future will come regardless of how one feels about it doing so.

"Make War," the album's ninth track (if you've lost count), is a country song. A ballad about dead love between two people that flourishes anew when one party finds someone else. The twang here is palpable. This is Oberst's forthcoming americana phase prophesied. The gain on the vocal track is cracklingly distorted. The pedal steel is sorrowful. The harmonica is ethereal, floating along as the song develops into it's ultimate chorus, which is something I always envisioned as a drunken crowd at an Omaha, NE dive singing into a cheap tape recorder. I know the truth is probably far more precise and produced (Mogis' production on Bright Eyes records is always exacting), but I'll take my romanticism over reality in this instance. This is my favorite track on this album full of my favorite songs ever written and recorded. That's the highest praise I can give it.

The tape recorder stops, marking the beginning of "Waste of Paint." I heard on a podcast once that Oberst writes verse upon verse for songs before cutting the work down to its final form. I image that every song of his would be like this if he didn't go through that final editorial process. The song is just his voice and his guitar. It's a frilless, drum corps-less piece about mistakes, endings, and grappling with self-perception over how others might view us. There's beauty here, found when the narrator's parked outside of a church singing to himself when his words are absorbed by a choir practicing inside the cathedral. We're all pieces of this puzzle, right? The song ends with Oberst pining for belief in his soul.

This transitions perfectly into "From a Balance Beam," where subjects in the first verse make a miracle from an absurd spectacle. The lyrical content deals with the end of the world, the futility of life, death (both in the end of life and as a transition), and destiny or lack thereof. The song, via Mogis' virtuosity, has a dream-like quality--each of the backing instruments play into this, as does the droning undercurrent from some reverberated synth.

"Laura Laurent," Lifted's penultimate track, is a sleepy waltz of a country tune backed with near-ragtime piano and gallowy pedal steel. The drum corp tugs the song ever forward, to its inevitable conclusion. Oberst sings of old love (if it was ever love), depression, and a single positive outlet: "...it's the ones with the sorest throats, Laura/Who have done the most singing." The track finishes with a refrain from the same group of barflies that ended "Make War."

We come now, at last, to the final track. A timpani roll provides our introduction to "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (to Love and to Be Loved)." It's propelled by an electric guitar, organ, pedal steel, harmonica, dobro, the album's nearly-ever-present drum corps, and more. It's a culmination of all the ideas Oberst's lyrics have featured thus far while delving into political clout and showmanship and the devastating results of these. At over ten minutes in length, its multitude of stream of consciousness verses are winding and confusing, but the result is wonderful nevertheless. It's a scathing take on America, religion, mental health, and the all-present desire to find one's place in the world. Oberst's voice becomes less grounded as the song reaches its conclusion. He's completed unhinged as he finishes the final line: "To love and to be loved/let's just hope that is enough." The track ends with a sound collage,  vocal clips of Oberst humming lightly to himself, and phone messages left by his friends. It's satisfying in a way, but incomprehensive, with tape hiss rounding out the album. This is a story with neither a beginning nor an end. 

The beer's a 10/10. Little Fish produced the first sour ale I ever had. They're masters of the craft. Last year's Barrel-Aged Woodthrush stands as another beer proving that. The space I've devoted to it here is far from what it deserves--it's a must-drink farmhouse ale.

Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground is a masterpiece. It's an ever-affecting work that I've heard countless times since it's release. Each time I listen to it, I'm struck with some new sound or lyric that hadn't yet made its mark on me. It is the standard against which I judge all other music. I've said what I've said here, which that's nothing compared to all I can say of it. Each track is more than I've written about it. There are so many talented musicians and technicians who aided in bringing the project to fruition. It's a perfect piece of art when taken on its own merit, and gains so much more clarity and depth when gauged against the whole Bright Eyes discography.

Full credits from Lifted's liner notes.

If you've listened to all of Lifted as you read this post and feel an immediate need for more, listen to the There Is No Beginning to the Story EP, Noise Floor, and (if you're reading this on or after November 11th, 2022) the LIFTED Or The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground: A Companion EP. Beyond that, you can expand to the rest of the band's work or any myriad of phenomenal extant covers/live versions of the album's songs.

I can't believe this record's twenty years old. It sounds as fresh and urgent as it did the very first time I heard it.

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