Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes came into his own this year with the Desaparecidos, a Karl Marx-gone-At the Drive In manifesto of noise. Read Music/Speak Spanish railed in private terms, showing economic pressure unraveling love; Bright Eyes' new album, Lifted, succeeds for similar reasons with "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love and to Be Loved)," an eight-minute panoramic tour of the hypocrisies and heartbreaks of Oberst's America. Its breezy country-pop pace makes no distinctions between our culture's failures and the failures of Oberst's youth; it's like Woody Guthrie's theme song for a John Sayles movie inspired by David Bowie's "Young Americans."
If that sounds dangerously ambitious for the introspective Oberst, it's only one shot in a salvo that acknowledges no important differences between how we live and how we love. Lifted is easily the bravest work the young songwriter (best known for tortured obsessions over ex-girlfriends) has made yet. At 73 minutes, it recalls the scope of confused indie epics such as Zen Arcade, with lyrics so well crafted that they transcend youthful messiness. In a cracking, tear-stained voice he warns, "If you want to see the future, go and stare into a cloud" -- and somehow makes it sound like earned wisdom.
It certainly doesn't hurt that Lifted draws from deeper musical waters than Oberst has ever dared plumb. Whereas earlier efforts rested on bare sonic frames, this time around he pits his poetry against waltzes, warm twang and John Barry-size symphonic swells, an easy cohabitation of roots and sonic sophistication. When he does bring out a lo-fi heartbreaker, such as "Waste of Paint," it's rare enough that you notice the intimacy and not the exhibitionism. On the other hand, he also flirts with hooks on "Method Acting" and "Make War," his best pop songs ever. Here's hoping a world that's deemed Dashboard Confessional's mediocre self-flagellation worthy of cult stardom will make room for Bright Eyes' smarter angst.