Saturday, September 11, 2010

Bright Eyes, "Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground"

Bright Eyes, Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground

The real reason that I have been commenting on albums lately is not that I started listening to albums on Simfy but that I started running regularly, and while I run I listen to albums on my iPhone (some on the iPod, some on Simfy). Since I keep making asides about Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes, I thought I'd listen to a Bright Eyes album while running and see whether I could come up with some coherent comments about it without just gushing about how fantastic I think CO and BE are. I chose the earliest CD I have by Bright Eyes as a starting point.

This turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would be, simply because I found so many things to comment on that I could not keep them all in mind while running! So I found the lyrics to the album on-line and put them all in a Word file and printed it out and read them, looking for themes I had noticed while running. Even then, I had too many passages to comment on! If Conor Oberst was a poet (well, he is, but that's a different issue), and I was doing literary criticism, I would look for the exemplary passages that stand for all the others, but this is my blog, so I don't have to be rigorous, and I've just picked out a few of my favorite bits.

In the first song, "The Big Picture," I laughed out loud at the line "don't go blaming your knowledge on some fruit you ate." Over and over again, Oberst picks up on Christian imagery to look at it from all sides and challenge it, and he almost always does so with this much wit. The end of "Waste of Paint," with the singer at choir practice at the cathedral, provides a kind of summary of this theme of the CD:

But when I lift my voice up now to reach them,
the range is too high, way up in heaven,
so I hold my tongue, forget the song,
tie my shoe, and start walking off,
and just try to keep moving on,
with my broken heart and my absent God,
and I have no faith, but it is all I want,
to be loved and believe in my soul, in my soul.

Oberst was 22 when this CD came out, and there are a few moments here where he shows his age, as it were, but here the specificity of the scene allows him to arrive at a very general, quite abstract conclusion that is fully grounded in the imagery. Here, music leads him to a clear statement of the problems he keeps addressing, but the music only clarifies, even heightens, the problems, without solving them.

The last lines of the CD, though, in the song "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)," return to these themes:

But where was it when I first heard a sweet sound of humility?
It came to my ears in the goddamn loveliest melody.
How grateful I was then to be part of the mystery,
to love and to be loved. Let's hope that is enough.

The "conclusion" of the CD seems a bit flat, actually: we should "love and be loved," that's all that we need to do. But that flatness is offset not only by the uncertain hope that is actually the end of the CD but also by the rich and biting writing that precedes it. There is too much irony in Oberst's lyrics to allow the conclusion to flatten out what has come before it; in fact, the irony and imagery of the lyrics as a whole tend to undermine the possibility that "to love and to be loved" is "enough."

These lines also provide a conclusion to the album's theme of what music is for: the "loveliest melody" provides access to "a sweet sound of humility" and the experience of being "part of the mystery." At times, this theme is as hopeful as it is at the end, as here in "Bowl of Oranges":

But when crying don't help,
and you can't compose yourself,
it is best to compose a poem,
an honest verse of longing or a simple song of hope.

Here, and elsewhere on the album (and in Oberst's writing in general), I'm struck by how he represents what poetry is for: here, it is poetry as therapy, as a way to make up for not being able to "compose yourself." But the song concludes with a different understanding of art:

But if the world could remain within a frame like a painting on a wall,
then I think we would see the beauty.
Then we would stand staring in awe
at our still lives posed like a bowl of oranges,
like a story told by the fault lines and the soil.

This is a much different sense of art's purpose: not as therapy for the artist but as an experience for the recipient, as a frame for the world that makes it possible to "see the beauty" that is otherwise lost in the details. The "still lives ... like bowls of oranges" provide a sense of "awe" that make one think that "the goddamn loveliest melody" might be enough to redeem the world.

But "Waste of Paint" (the song that ends with the choir practice and the "absent God") provides another understanding of what poetry is for and what it "makes happen" (to finally refer to W.H. Auden, whose lines keep crossing my mind as I think about Bright Eyes):

As I hide behind these books I read,
while scribbling my poetry,
like art could save a wretch like me,
with some ideal ideology
that no one can hope to achieve,
and I am never real;
it is just a sketch of me,
and everything I made is trite and cheap
and a waste of paint, of tape, of time.

Here, the writing of poetry is not therapy, not an attempt to make up for being unable to "compose yourself," but it does not provide a sense of awe, either. The artist cannot see the work from the outside, cannot see the "bowl of oranges" in such a way that he is awed by it. The imagery may make me, as the listener, feel that sense of awe and wonder and humility that Oberst keeps circling around, but his own work only ends up feeling like a "waste" to him.

It's when Oberst does let the "bowl of oranges" speak for itself that he does his best writing. Here's a favorite passage of mine from the beginning of "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and To Be Loved)":

I've seen a child caught in the sad trap of gravity.
He falls from the lowest branch of the apple tree
and lands in the grass and weeps for his dignity.
Next time he will not aim so high.
Yeah, next time, neither will I.

This is all just a perfectly described scene with a deft little interpretation provided, but of course the scene is full of resonances that make it much more complex than the issue of how much ambition one should have, how high one should aim: the apple tree alone manages to connect Genesis and Isaac Newton. Even as Oberst says he will reel in his ambition because of what he has seen, the lines make clear just how ambitious he is, driven by the problem of "the absent God" and the "end of the world" as described by modern physics to try to find meaning for himself and others, in art and in love, hoping that is enough.

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