The eyes have it

'The picture is far too big to look at, kid. Your eyes won't open wide enough and you are constantly surrounded by that swirling stream of what is and what was," seethes Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes at the outset of the new album, "Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground." The track is titled "The Big Picture," and Oberst continues: "Well, we've all made our predictions, but the truth still isn't out. So if you want to see the future, go stare into a cloud."

Or, more likely, stare at Oberst himself, who, in one of many strokes of visceral brilliance present on this release, chooses to kick things off with the hiss of a car cassette player and the sound of a female listener being casually sucked in, occasionally even singing along. Perhaps it's that grasp of music as an experience -- method music, if you will -- that makes his Bright Eyes project (essentially Oberst, supported by an ensemble of Omaha musicians) so compelling. He creates songs that travel sonic contexts based on where they should sit in the listener's head, from dramatic orchestral send-up down to bathroom-corner-strummed lament.

It's no wonder, then, that the world is listening and singing along in kind. Recent features in Time and The New York Times hail 22-year-old Oberst, along with his surprising host scene of Omaha, Neb., as music's salvation. British tastemakers like Mojo and Q froth at his dishevelled genius. But Oberst, on the phone from his tour bus somewhere between Boston and New Jersey, refuses to believe the hype.

"To a certain extent, I know that, as far as people talking about it right now, it's a temporary thing," he says. "As far as the media goes, they'll be on to something else pretty quickly."

Maybe. But to dismiss "Lifted" in the haze of its media celebration is to miss out on one of this year's most accomplished recordings. Adding a vodka-breathed taste of Jarvis Cocker mirth to the indie downcast of Elliot Smith's more revealing moments, Oberst has knocked a new dynamism into the singer/songwriter pose. Those in the know are calling him the new Dylan, even dredging up early Cure recordings for Robert Smith references to apply to his tortured warble.

"I think both those dudes are pretty cool," Oberst says. "But I don't know how valid either of `the comparisons` are."

In reality, Oberst's Bright Eyes, along with new-wave neophytes The Faint, are the sound of America happening: a sum of influences set into motion by, well, boredom.

"I don't know necessarily how it compares to other people trying to do it in other places, but I know, for us, I think definitely Nebraska has effected the way we do everything," he says. "It's a little slower-paced kind of place, and there's a lot of time to just, you know, drink and make music. It's the type of place where there's a lot of creative people, but there's also sort of a hardcore work ethic."

That ethic saw Oberst at the ripe age of 13 assembling his creativity into a series of live performances, 7-inch vinyls and cassettes.

"My voice hadn't changed yet, and I couldn't sing at all. And imagine the things you were thinking about when you were 13. It's pretty brutal to listen to now, but I don't regret it," he says of the time.

Eventually, some like-minded inhabitants coalesced into an indie collective, called it Saddle Creek and set out to promote the ambitions of the budding Omaha scene. Today, some eight years later, Saddle Creek continues to release records from Bright Eyes (four full-lengths and two EPs) and The Faint, among others, garnering critical mass without any of the tastemaking manipulations of major-label support. Suffice to say that anyone on RCA would kill for this band's media profile.

But the simplicity, and likewise, the surprising musical complexity, is what makes Bright Eyes so important. In the low-lit spaces out of industry reach, that's where true creative exploration can ideally prosper. And, clearly, it does just that on "Lifted." Oboes, dulcimers and vibraphones embellish a level of confession and soul-search that is often so intense it practically spits.

"But life is no storybook. Love is an excuse to get hurt and to hurt," surmises Oberst on "Waste of Paint," with his torch held out overhead. "Do you like to get hurt? I do, I do. Then hurt me!"

Everything about "Lifted" is big, and consciously, even sarcastically so. Following a series of decidely more lo-fi efforts, Oberst decided to throw it all on the line for these songs, layering as many as 50 tracks onto his life-stripping rants.

"As far as the bigger arrangements and layering of sound, we've been moving in that direction since the previous album," he says. "For this one, I thought there was one more bigger step we could take to have the most enormous thing."

But enormous isn't easy to take on the road. Undaunted, Oberst -- who toured earlier this year with a six-pack of beautiful female musicians backing him -- has assembled a 15-piece orchestra for this jaunt in support of "Lifted."

"When we were making it, I didn't worry at all about how we were going to play it live," he recalls. "But once it was all mixed, I was like, 'Oh shit, how are we going to do this?' So I thought we might as well go for it. Really, we can only do this for one tour. I think the album, the songs, they deserve at least one time like this."

And then what? Oberst expects that his next Bright Eyes venture will key it down a bit.

"I'm definitely all about the back and forth of it all," he says. "Pretty naturally after doing all of this, it seems appealing to do something really minimal."

Whether such a style shift is advisable or not doesn't really concern Oberst. Eight years into his music career, it's obviously his own instincts that matter.

"I'm hoping that people will come away with something listening to it, or be able to relate it to their lives," he supposes. "But I guess for me it's just what I want to do, my form of expression. It's something I'd be doing regardless of whether people understand it or not."

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