Waste of Paint?

I'm gonna admit my unhipness right here and say that until earlier this year I'd never heard of Conor Oberst or his Bright Eyes. It was the article in Careless Talk Costs Lives that hipped me to him, but it wasn't until I picked up a copy of his new Lifted or The Story Is In The Soil Keep Your Ear on the Ground album that I finally got to hear what all the fuss was about. If this album is in any way indicative of the standard of the previous six or so Obrest records then I'm not entirely sure what I've missed out on, if anything much at all.

Rewind: the first I heard of Conor Obrest was in Careless Talk Costs Lives, when Everett True interviewed the members of the then just split Desapracedos. He pointedly asked Obrest how a fourteen year old boy could sing the Blues. Obrest, the child prodigy now in his early twenties, admitted he wasn't sure. Which is a shame, because he surely ought to be.

There's a traditionally held view that it's only old folks, specifically old guys and even more specifically old black guys who can sing the Blues. It's clearly a flawed argument. I always thought that the only people who should be singing the Blues were young folks, because only young folks have the requisite lack of experience to remove their 'pain' from the bigger context. The thought of some guy still singing the Blues when he's seventy or something is just plain depressing, an admission that they couldn't get it together enough to sort their life out. And sure, that's partly societies fault, and is partly the Industry's fault for perpetuating the very myth of the Blues, and maybe it's the whole damn point, but so what? They still sound like they're whining; they still come across like people who ought to know better. And I know that this is to deny the idea of the Blues actually being about what is not said; denies the fact that the Blues is about so much more than personal pain. But that's a historical reading, and I'm not at all sure that such a reading translates to the start of the 21st Century. Or if it does, it translates in artforms other than what passes for the musical genre the Industry likes to call Blues.

Young people (oh and go define 'young' for yourself) have more of a right to sing the Blues precisely because they have not had a lifetime of 'pain'. Their pain is new, is hyper-real and whilst inevitably mediated it's nevertheless not some romanticised cliché that falls back on years of failing to reverse out of the cul-de-sac. Pete Wylie once said that 'the Blues is about dignity, is about self-respect' but he was wrong, because the Blues is actually about loss of dignity, is about losing all self-respect in the face of looming failure, in the face of the love that withers and wears you out. Young people have the most right to sing the Blues because although it might look like there's no light on the horizon, there's at least some hope of redemption. It's the promise, the hope of light in the future that makes the darkness of the present so wondrous, so darkly appealing.

I think Conor Obrest sounds like he knows that to be true, although the evidence on Lifted is admittedly fleeting. Maybe this is because, by all accounts, Lifted is actually Obrest getting the 'lush' production job; maybe Lifted is to Bright Eyes and Obrest what XO was to Elliott Smith; the album where he crosses over from the ultra-hip underground to the land inhabited in the past and present by the likes of, oh, Smith, Ryan Adams, Lemonheads, a host of others. You can take your pick. And maybe my resistance to Lifted is partly tied up in the fact that I never liked XO anywhere near as much as the earlier, scratchier Elliot Smith albums. Which means maybe I'd like Obrest's previous albums more too.

Which isn't to say I don't like Lifted. I do. In parts I even love it.

There are some wildly abandoned moments here, songs that will twist a wire around your heart and pull it out through your eyes. Opener 'The Big Picture' is a squall, and is terrific evidence that whilst he can't sing for toffee, Obrest does what all great vocalists do; he makes his voice cry, crack, creak and croak. It's somehow right and fitting that the track abruptly cuts off just as he's getting down and dirty, really losing the plot, reaching for depths and heights you're left to wonder about. The following 'Method Acting' is just as wonderful, a hard hitting pounding song that hints at the Birthday Party eating candy floss and riding the rollercoaster at Coney Island. 'From A Balanced Beam' is the last fading rays of summer doing back flips on the lawn, landing kisses from a lipstick smudged mouth on your sunglasses; 'Lover I Don't Have to Love' is the Orchids meeting the Cure down some dodgy back alley for a sly fag. 'Waste of Paint' meantime is a richly melodramatic Dylan-esque epic that scours the insides of souls, takes an arch glance at the world and finds it wanting at best.

But therein lies the rub: 'Waste of Paint' is so knowing, so self-aware, that it feels already as though Obrest is writing self-parodicaly. It's as though, whilst Obrest is clearly a young man singing the Blues like only young men and women can, he can't decide if he wants to reach inside and scour his soul for the heart of darkness, or just wants to make angst-by-numbers lit-rock for the fashionable moneyed intellectual slumming-it set, making out like they're existentialist when really the reason they leave no shadow is because they are so dull the sun just can't be arsed.

So, I'm holding back on final judgment on Obrest and his Bright Eyes. I'm sitting on the fence until I can hear some of those earlier records, until I hear what he does next or at least until the lasting worth and depth of Lifted burns its way into my soul. It certainly sounds like it wants to, but sometimes wanting to just isn't enough.

© Alistair Fitchett 2002