Conor Oberst- Upside Down Mountain
Record Label: Nonesuch Records
Record Release: May 19, 2014
It’s been quite some time since Conor Oberst gave his listeners a true insight into the thoughts and feelings that occupy his mind. The Omaha wunderkind once won over the hearts of both the indie kids and the masses back around the turn of the century with his sometimes emotionally affecting, sometimes far too over the top poetics. Whether he was laying it on heavy in songs such as “Haligh, A Lie…” or breaking hearts with subtle tracks like “Lua”, one thing that could be relied on was that Conor Oberst, in all of his forms, would give us something earnest, something we could relate to. Times changed, however, and with the greater confidence Oberst seemed to grow in his songwriting, the more careful and measured it became. With 2011 and Bright Eyes’ most recent release The Peoples’ Key, the change was complete. It was a technically accurate, polished record, but the emotions and earnestness that Oberst dealt in had been completely neutralized, wrapped up in complicated lyrical metaphors and largely lacking in a personal touch.
Upside Down Mountain is a bit of a return to the Oberst of 2003. His first record under his own name (I have no idea how he keeps up with his various monikers) since 2009, Upside Down Mountain recalls the intimate, stripped back nature of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning whilst embracing the Southern folk vibes that have surrounded his songs for the last few years. The album is 55 minutes of simplistic storytelling, Oberst’s ever recognizable vocals and a whole lot of heart. If you’ve been an Oberst fan at any point of his career before 2009, it’s a record that’s easy to fall in love with.
Throughout the record, Oberst has created a perfect mixture of upbeat folk songs and melancholic lyricism. Opener “Time Forgot” starts procedures with tales on running away from the world and the liberation that comes with it. The calm, laidback, instrumentation is indicative of Oberst’s transition to becoming an elder of the indie scene, but what makes the release particularly endearing is that he still doesn’t have the answers to the questions he’s been struggling with throughout his lyrical career. As “Zigzagging Towards The Light” says “I’m gonna leave here before too long”. He’s still moving onwards, however as the upbeat, foot-tap nature of the song suggests, he’s now content to accept that change will always happen. For this reason, there’s a sense of jubilance to the record. If one has never heard an Oberst creation before, the opening tracks are simply incredibly catchy, pop radio friendly folk songs - much in the vein of Frank Turner’s recent work. For those who have grown up alongside Oberst’s music, it’s a welcomed new stage of his career.
That’s not to say that the entire record is filled with motivational sunshine. “Enola Gray”, a highlight of the overall Oberst canon, features some of his best storytelling. Over the course of two minutes, we’re introduced to the meaningless meandering of an anonymous young woman struggling to come to terms with the shittiness of life. However, unlike many of his previous viewpoints, there’s a sense of acceptance and maturity within his narration. “You Are Your Mother’s Child” is along the same lines. Telling the story of a child’s life from the point of view of his parent, it’s a simple, mature song. No longer does Oberst strain to use over-dramatic lyricism - he’s disposed of the pretense which made him inaccessible to many listeners. His understanding of human nature is so much more effective when he allows his stories to be the most important aspect of his music and it seems that, finally, he’s accepted that. Like “Lua” before it, the lyrics don’t need to be overtly sad - when one has the ability to create a real atmosphere with a few instruments and lyrics, the listener will extrapolate the sadness for themselves.
Elsewhere, the album is filled with melody and memorability. With First Aid Kit acting as backup singers throughout the release, there are many moments when the record becomes quite aurally beautiful. The crescendo of “Desert Island Questionnaire” with its male/female vocals dynamic, timeless sound and fabulous one-liner “ I’m so bored with my life, but I’m still afraid to die” shows that Oberst still has that urgency, that ability to write a passionate song. Maybe it’s that timelessness that makes this record feel special. Upside Down Mountain has been created in a time vacuum. It sounds little like what any other indie musician today is creating, it just sounds like a Conor Oberst album and that’s both incredibly refreshing and comforting at the same time.
There’s been small hints of criticism floating around reviews of the record, suggesting that Conor Oberst was at his best back when he seemed urgent, when he seemed heartbroken. To believe that is to completely lack understanding of change and development. If Oberst was still yelping into microphones about how his ex-girlfriend gave him a lock of her hair and that meant they’d never break up and now she’s banging some dude and he’s really sad, Oberst would not be a good musician. To continue to entertain your fans and to continue to entertain yourself, a musician needs to believe in the music they’re playing. Upside Down Mountain is the perfect album to come from a recently married musician who has been in the industry for 20 years and has played a role in the creation of hundreds of songs. Maybe, finally, it’s time we give Oberst the credit he’s always deserved. Upside Down Mountain is all a fan could have asked for.
Great review. This album is his 'Wildflowers', sharing the vibe and sequencing.
I agree it's "time we give Oberst the credit he's always deserved". People know he's great, but they don't truly know how great.
Heard it a few times and loved. Saw him play a show in Orlando last week and he played about 7 songs off this that I knew from a leaked version I had. The intensity of Desert Island Questionnaire live was amazing. To me he's always been one of the better writers in any genre I listen to. The only person that compares to him, imo, is Tim Kasher. Anyhow gotta listen to this album more because I enjoyed it a lot. Can't wait for my preorder to come in. Great review!
Great review. I love anything Conor does. From A Collection of Songs to this new album, it's amazing how many songs he has written and continues to write great songs and lyrics. Definitely liking this album more than the two Mystic Valley Band albums.
Same here. I think it's the growing up/getting older aspect. That song was written for the movie, Stuck in Love, where Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott did the score and selected the soundtrack. Pretty good movie.