Music

Conor Oberst: Upside Down Mountain

Conor Oberst steers clear from social prognosis or overbearing attempts at change, focusing more on what broke him into the mainstream’s eye in the first place.


Conor Oberst

Upside Down Mountain

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2014-05-20
Amazon
iTunes

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.

6

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image