The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Tuesday, August 20, 2002

You know, maybe I should have made that American Trilogy a quartet, because here's a new perspective on soul searching and self emotional examination.

Lifted, or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground is the seventh album from Conor Oberst, aka Bright Eyes (don't ask me about the other six). And it may initially appear to be yet more tequila-soaked, tormented and tormenting navel unravelling. Except it isn't. It's a brutally honest exercise in self-evaluation, which frequently draws attention to its effectiveness in the context of a song and an album, and brilliantly performed.

Vocally, imagine Oberst as a kind of hopped-up Mike Scott minus all the cod mysticism. Instrumentally, it's the same strings/horn/vibes blend as Lambchop or the Polyphonic Spree, though notably more feral (and perhaps more alive) than either.

The album's presented in the form of a car tape (bookended by the appropriate sound effects and chatter). It opens with a stark guitar/voice solo "The Big Picture" in which Oberst tries to outline and justify reasons for not giving up on life, obsessed with the truth about truth and love. Stop being "wrapped up in your blanket," and don't "lose yourself in liquor" for "there is nothing I know except that this lifetime is one moment and wishing will just leave me empty." And "you can struggle in the water and be too stubborn to die or you could just let go and be lifted to the sky." He is, of course, singing to himself, as he makes abundantly clear at album's end.

"Method Acting" keeps the mood constant, addressing the conflict between going on stage or on record and expressing these emotions, and the actual reality ("Please keep the tape rolling...we need a record of our failures"). However, he clearly feels like giving up: "Oh, how I truly wish I could keep hanging around here but my joy is covering me. Soon, I will disappear." Musically the record is sublime, just on the right side of muscular without being overpowering, and reminiscent somewhat of Tindersticks minus the archness and with some added passion.

"False Advertising" continues the art/life debate (with some mock vinyl crackles to underline the "difference") though even this is deliberately contrived (the bum notes after the lyric "Now all that anyone is listening for are the mistakes"). It ends with an anthemic rush and the sounds of partying friends, though at the end Oberst exits anyway, shuts the door and goes up to his study to contemplate.

On the Faces-like stomp "You Will. You? Will. You? Will. You? Will," Oberst turns his attentions to love, or to be more precise tries to recapture the elation of his first childhood love, while realising all along that she who is loved is not an option. "You say that I treat you like a book on a shelf" the song begins, and the metaphor continues throughout (rather less contrived than Costello's "Everyday I Write The Book"). It ends with the title refrain over a joyous rockout, after which Oberst proclaims "Because if you don't, then this book is all lies...then my plans would all be ruined...I'll start drinking like the way I drank before/And I won't have a future anymore." Sung as though all his Christmases have come at once.

Next track "Lover I Don't Have To Love" is an exercise in self-excoriation worthy of Jarvis Cocker, outlining Oberst's reluctance to jump in and get involved for fear of being hurt. Any excuse not to theorise himself out of bed. And yet in the following song "Bowl of Oranges" over an amiable Van Morrison-type canter, he happily sings of his commitment to commitment. He is trying to leave his nightmares behind and enter into a proper relationship which will take account of "Love's uneven remainders" yet not be defeated by them.

Out of this uptempo mood, however, emerges a piano refrain which bridges into the finest track on the album, the astonishing "Don't Know When But A Day Is Gonna Come" wherein Oberst acknowledges but is powerless to address his inertia. Thinks about his father, about a "lovely girl" he fancied but who "up and died, in a fit of vanity," about his drinking buddies without whose friendship he cannot live, about the son of God, ultimately about the need for explanation. The tune gradually works itself up to an explosion, over which he screams "Could you please start explaining? You know, I need some understanding." This is powerful music.

The theme continues in the graceful perambulation of "Nothing Gets Crossed Out," again all about the fatality of keeping your options open; every possible escape route shut off with a qualifying "but."

Then, considerations of love return to prominence, and it's "Make War" which lyrically is the negative of "Make It Easy On Yourself." In both songs, the former lover encourages the girl to hurry to her new partner, but Oberst knows that her new lover will be killed by "all that has spoiled in your heart." Sung as a C&W ballad, and worthy of Wynette were she still alive to sing it.

Back to human analysis in "Waste of Paint" where Oberst examines the downfall of various people he knows who are reluctant to face the realities of life, talk themselves into destruction, and yet realising his own grave deficiencies. He talks about living with a couple but can only lament his own lack of luck in love: "Like Love is some kind of lottery, where you scratch and see what is underneath. It's "Sorry," just one cherry, "Play Again." Get lucky" he snarls in genuine wounded rage. Yes, Conor, you're nice and intelligent and need help, but there's someone else just that little bit better than you, and it's him I'm fucking, not you, so tough shit and buona sera you bastard. But Conor is intelligent enough to know that the reality is beyond this. He looks at people disembarking from a train, starts to rail against their robot-like lives but realises that "it is not them but me, who has lost my self-identity...And I am never real; it is just a sketch of me" (again, referring back to the imperfect surroundings of talking about this in an album). The closing howl of "I have no Faith but it is all I want, to be loved and believe in my soul" (shades of Kevin Rowland?) is wrenching to witness. "From A Balance Beam" offers no respite either; he sings about discovering the realities of existence, but feels that even these will offer scant succour. "Laura Laurent" is a lament for a loved and lost girl whom he doesn't have the nerve to contact.

And finally, a resolution of sorts: "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And Be Loved)." Musically, this is a genuinely ecstatic variant on "Fisherman's Blues" jacked up to the power of a billion, where Oberst talks about a failed suicide attempt, retraces his life thus far in outlines, and decides to keep on going, with the lack of feasible alternatives. "How grateful I was then to be part of the mystery, to love and be loved," he concludes. "Let's just hope that is enough." And you know in yourself that he will carry on, still uncertain and wracked with fear, but not enough to justify the ultimate surrender. As the rest of us have to do.

A female voice comments at the end, as the tape runs out, "I wouldn't worry about him."

Nor do we have to. This is Eminem with less real self-hatred (and, concurrently, more real self-doubt). This is something approaching a masterpiece. Please investigate immediately.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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Don't trust comparisons. I know nought about the man behind Cursor Miner but even before listening to his debut album Explosive Piece Of Mind know that he is NOT Syd Barrett with a laptop instead of a guitar. Facile and nowhere near a "truth." He is undoubtedly an entertaining and vaguely purposeful musician but there's nothing on here that will make you cry like "Golden Hair" does.

But you're nowhere without some sort of comparison so I would say that Cursor Miner is digging at the same seam as Thomas Leer once did; that purple area between pop and out there. "Never Been Seen," the first song here, is a great guitar-driven electrostomp, despite lyrics of the fifth form surrealism calibre of "your cobalt camper van is women/fears like mean time on top of team" etc.

The album alternates between Fad Gadget/Leer-style twisted electropop and more abstract glitch-ups. The latter in themselves are almost '80s revivalist in a different way; tracks like "Eezerk One" could have been taken straight from Christian Marclay's Record Without a Cover, one of the key records of the '80s. Sometimes, as on "U Want To Want," the pop falls just on the right side of cheesy, reminding one of the very thin line which divided Tovey and Leer from Wang Chung or Alphaville. On track ten, "Salt Solution," he unfortunately tries to do Beck, but otherwise this is fine music for travelling up the M6 on a placid summer afternoon. The epic instrumental "Propaganda" is kind of reminiscent of, erm, Propaganda. It's good to have around.

posted by Marcello Carlin Permalink
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