I'm one of those people who is always willing to give artists a second or even third chance. Perhaps it's an optimistic outlook on things, or perhaps I'm just a sucker, but I never quite write anyone off completely. Despite living in the same state as one Conor Oberst, and despite lots of critical praise, I'd just never been able to quite get into his releases. While I was ocassionally intrigued musically, his vocal style and lyrics often put me off. I'd listened to each of his early releases and had songs that kind of struck me, but after hearing the buzz on this newest release, I finally gave in again and decided to give it a chance again, and I'm glad that I did.
Living in the same state as Oberst, it's also an interesting position to hear opinions on his work from other people. While there are people who are completely indifferent, most people have a fairly strong opinion on whether they like or absolutely can't stand Bright Eyes. Such is the case when a hometown artist gains critical and commercial success, though, and while some people can't get around his voice or lyrics (as I used to), there are also those who are simply jealous of his success. Heck, I'm happy for anyone who can make a living doing the thing they love, and while it's sometimes a rambling mess, The Story Is In The Soil... sounds like one of those releases that was both cathartic and damn fun to put together.
Testing listeners to the limit, the album actually starts out with the most testing track on the disc. "The Big Picture" is a nearly 9-minute track that starts with a found-sound sample of people driving around in a car exchanging directions and words before Oberst comes jangling in and letting loose with a wildly uneven acoustic-guitar backed vocal track that ends with him warbling and wailing before he's cut off with a burst of static. "Method Acting" gives the album a real start as a propulsive rhythm takes hold and multiple layers of guitars chime out. "False Advertising" follows it up with an orchestral-pop waltz, and Oberst enters a downright new realm in terms of his vocals, singing in a way that most would label as 'crooning.' It's cynical and downright funny at the same time with the overdramatic backing (which even has a choreographed 'mistake' in the middle of the track just as he utters said word).
Musically, the album is adventurous and often quite lush. "Lover I Don't Have To Love" drifts along with a pretty Rhodes organ melody and some thick percussion while a string quartet fills out the chorus while "From A Balance Beam" floats along with layers of light guitars and harpsichord, another entry into lush orchestral backing that works quite well. Mike Mogis, who has been honing his skills for quite some time now (and who was a member and producer of the criminally overlooked Lullaby For The Working Class) both behind and in front of the boards, is no doubt one of the major reasons the release sounds as good as it does, along with a gaggle of other musicians/friends. Even though it's kind of a rambling sprawl of rambunctious energy, the nearly 10-minute final track of "Let's Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And Be Loved)" is one of the best examples of what works and doesn't with the group. It's a multi-layered track that swings for the fences in scope and actually hits most of the time, mixing live drunken bar vocals with studio and live instrumentation, along with Oberst's vocals that try to assess the state-of-the-world.
In addition to the first track on the disc, there are a couple other soft spots on the disc, and they mainly arrive when everything is stripped down to just acoustic guitar and vocals. If you're a fan of such a setup, you'll probably find them intriguing, but given the richness of other tracks on the release, the stripped moments offer a respite, but simply aren't quite as appealing. Heck, "Bowl Of Oranges" is quite possibly the happiest and uplifting track that Oberst has ever written, and the piano and strummy guitar backing is wonderful, breathing a new life into the middle of the album. At 13 songs and almost 75 minutes, it probably could have been cut down and made better, but that's part of the territory with Bright Eyes (he's been pouring out everything for quite awhile, so there's no reason he should stop). Even though he's been releasing music for about 8 years now, this release is a notable step up and despite having written him off, I'll definitely pay more attention to what he's up to now.