On the brink of a new level of fame, BRIGHT EYES isn't blinking.

By Marc Weingarten
Updated August 16, 2002 at 04:00 AM EDT

Ah, Nebraska. Land of Cornhuskers, USDA-approved beef, and leading-edge indie rock. Yes, you read that right. Far from the music-biz orbits of New York and L.A., a vibrant community is thriving in a state whose only previous claim to pop-culture fame was Johnny Carson. Among the artists who have sprung from the Omaha scene — a tight-knit fraternity that includes neo-new wavers the Faint and the quintet Cursive — Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst, 22, has emerged as the charismatic figurehead, a gifted musical magpie who whipsaws between noisy, politically pointed guitar rock and ramshackle acoustic folk.

Earlier this year, Oberst’s other band, the semi-side project Desaparecidos, released Read Music/Speak Spanish, the first concept album to tackle suburban sprawl. (Making Oberst the Al Gore of indie rock?) Hailed by critics as a noisy yet powerful polemic, Spanish solidified Oberst’s stature as a social critic for hipsters. ”I didn’t want to come across as preachy,” says Oberst. ”It’s kind of hypocritical, inasmuch as we’re criticizing what we’re still functioning within, but the record’s mostly about self-improvement and wanting to be better than you are.”

On their latest album, Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (out Aug. 13), Bright Eyes sound like Pavement had their members been reared in the Carter Family. A loose conglomeration of musicians, the band has operated mostly under the radar for the past seven years, releasing a small shelf’s worth of material. Lifted is tangled roots rock, with pretty ruminations upended by noisy interludes and love laments whose meanings never quite reveal themselves, thanks to Oberst’s oblique lyrics. ”I like to have a certain off-kilter quality to everything,” he says. ”I’ve always liked records that take a little work for the listener. It’s a bigger payoff that way. Anything instantly gratifying is not worth spending time with.”

As a rock-besotted kid, Oberst spent a lot of time with two very different record collections: his guitar-playing dad’s classic-rock library and his older brother’s indie-rock vinyl. Oberst picked up a guitar at age 10 and formed his first band two years later. ”We pretty much sucked,” he says. That didn’t deter the budding rock star from gigging and recording a demo before he was 13. ”I sound like a cartoon on that thing.”

These days he’s acting more like the Roadrunner, with a pack of hungry major-label A&R coyotes nipping at his tail. For now, Oberst is staying with Saddle Creek records, the tiny label that has become the locus of the Nebraska movement. ”It’s kinda like, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says. ”I’m making a living, even if it’s modest, and we’re in control. I’m most proud of the fact that we’re doing this on our own.” And that’s all, folks.