Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground solidified the brilliance of Conor Oberst’s songwriting.
Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2002) solidified the brilliance of Conor Oberst’s songwriting. The album also provided more than ample evidence that he had found the perfect collaborator in Mike Mogis, a producer capable of providing the perfect settings for his songs, creating bits of aural theatre that allowed the album to move beyond ordinary rock ‘n’ roll and into the hall of greats.
Mogis’ touches are impossible to ignore anywhere, yet they don’t call unnecessary attention to themselves. For instance, the eight-minute opener “The Big Picture,” begins with Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis and Blake Sennett climbing into a van and finding their way around Omaha. As the two converse we hear the slap of windshield wipers and, slowly, the sound of something like an orchestra tuning up. That gives way to the sound of someone, perhaps Oberst, tuning up a guitar and starting to play a tune. It sounds like he’s alone in his room, finding the song and leaving the bread crumbs on a cheap tape deck, just in case he can’t remember it all later on.
It’s a soundscape that’s stark, spontaneous and hyper-realistic. If you didn’t know better, you might imagine that Oberst was writing the song as he recorded it. Then just as the track is about to reach a climax, we’re taken out of the scene and dropped into a sea of unrelated sounds: Radio broadcasts, what may be phone conversations and the sounds of dialogue from old movies.
Other producers might have delivered a wall of sound that tried to recapture the pomp and power of Born to Run, but Mogis lets us out of it easy, and is smart enough not to try to replicate that vibe. “Method Acting” is big and dramatic but never overstates its case. The trumpet sounds like it’s played by someone who abandoned the instrument long ago and is once more trying to find music within it; the percussion feels loose and imperfect. It’s exactly what the song needs.
Though fans would bemoan later releases such as the electronic-heavy Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, it’s not that far removed from “Lover I Don’t Have to Love.” The rhythms feel squared off, binary, machinelike for much of the track and, in later moments, you can almost imagine a swelling orchestra of synthesizers playing beneath the anguish of Oberst’s voice. There is, of course, the Americana-inflected “Bowl of Oranges,” one of the songs that launched 1001 troubadours and their bedroom-made records over the coming decade. It has the right measure of sweetness and suspicion, the core elements of Oberst’s songs, and Mogis adds oboe and countless other small touches to the mix, making it sound exactly like it would sound if it was recorded by Phil Spector on a shoestring budget.
Sometimes suspicion overtakes the sweetness, as on the distorted, psychotic country of “Make War” or the vein-opener “Waste of Paint,” but nothing devolves into distant, ironic musings. These are the thoughts of a significant voice in American music, a poet formed by the post-digital world but still completely comfortable in the analogue one.
The album’s 73-minute running time never feels that long, thanks to the diverse material and Mogis’ ability to vary the settings enough that we can move from one track to another with a sense of excitement. The record ends with the appropriately goofy and freewheeling “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (to Love and Be Loved),” which resolves, like the opener into a wash of noise that reminds us that any celebration may be short-lived, and that we need to keep the right measure of sweetness and suspicion in our hearts at all times.
Bright Eyes would make many other records, some of them maybe even more brilliant than this one. But it’s hard to imagine that any of them balanced talent and naiveté with quite the same brilliance.