Conor Oberst is only 34 years old. And although his rail-thin frame and boyish face makes him look even younger, it still seems impossible, considering he’s spent almost two decades as a renowned recording artist, most notably from elevating himself to indie folk-hero status as the brains behind Bright Eyes. In that time he’s worn many different masks: from the gentle, contemplative singer songwriter to the rootsy, stream-of-consciousness dreamer to the ambient, electronic experimenter.
With Upside Down Mountain, he aims for something more basic. It’s reflective and wallows in the simple things, steering relatively clear from social prognosis or overbearing attempts at change, focusing more on what broke him into the mainstream’s eye in the first place.
In many ways, Upside Down Mountain is reminiscent of the most acclaimed Bright Eyes album, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. There’s a certain ubiquitous solitude, yet candid openness to it. A good chunk of it is sparse. There are moments with gorgeous harmonies. And he takes his lyrical approach back to a place where he pulls off the masks and gets personal. In my opinion, throughout his career, he is at his weakest when he is the most wordy. With that said, I realize his lyrics are his strongest asset, but sometimes he’s capable of overdoing it, digressing into wobbly gibberish. Not too much here though, which is why Upside Down Mountain often recalls so much of his best work: it is just enough of a puzzle to make it fun to dissect, without running too far amok.
Conor Oberst came into music at the right time. When he was starting to gain traction in the early 2000s, emo was breaking into the mainstream. Folk fans were also — as they almost always are —searching for a new weary soul’s shoulders to put their hope on. And with a trembling, wayward voice that this generation’s Converse kids could dig and just enough ambiguous, streamlined poetics to earn the admirable — no matter how tired and redundant —Dylan comparison, Oberst bridged the gap, making him the unlikely prince of contemporary songwriting.
Upside Down Mountain’s opener, “Time Forgot”, is a breezy, idealistic step into the shadows, featuring sharp, earthy harmonies from sisters Klara and Johanna Söderberg of First Aid Kit. “Polished my shoes, I bought a brand new hat, moved to a town that time forgot / Where I don’t have to shave or be approachable / No, I can do just what I want,” Oberst exclaims in the first line, setting the tone for the album’s whimsical approach. “Hundreds of Ways” is a driving, shifty pop-rock gem, anchored by Vampire Weekend-ish Caribbean rhythms, lush backing vocals and cheerful horns.
“Double Life” shows he can still structure some pretty intelligent, catchy vocal melodies around mopey, dreary verses. “Desert Island Questionnaire” is a psychedelic cringe at the world. And “Night at Lake Unknown” is a barebones — at least by his standards — folk throwback.
Upside Down Mountain doesn’t take too many chances and, while I’m usually all for evolution, this is a good thing for Conor Oberst. He’s seemed a little off course lately… and revisiting the past is never a bad choice when searching for answers. Especially when it feels like such an effortless transition.