Tonight’s Album Review: Conor Oberst, Upside Down Mountain

It can’t be easy for Conor Oberst to continue writing the same level music that’s made him “the modern day Dylan” for the past 15 years.

After playing under the Bright Eyes moniker for so long, Oberst seems to, with each “solo” effort, attempt to shed one or two of those early Bright Eyes shells. The problem with shedding the Bright Eyes image, though, is that for Oberst, Bright Eyes was at its core, a solo effort.

In May of 2014, Oberst released Upside Down Mountain, his first solo effort without the help of the Mysic Valley Band.

The album opens with its strongest track, “Time Forgot,” a loud, canyon-echo of a song that features traditional folk voicings with groovy bass lines and Phil Collins-esque drum fills (which are fucking awesome, by the way). “Here we go man, it’s beautiful,” Oberst sings, for a moment abandoning the lust for death and new beginnings in his lyrics. “Get your trumpet, get your drum.” You may find yourself nodding your head in agreement.

“Zigzagging Toward the Light,” although the single of the album, is an alt-rock banger, mostly shallow in it’s structure and lyrics, and just builds up enough steam, before it fizzles out toward the end in feedback and intentionally-misplayed frenetic notes.

Lyrically, the whole album, something like Oberst’s previous releases, deals with death; or life, and treats them in somewhat the same way. “Double Life,” a slow, red wine-drunk track dropped inconspicuously into the middle of the album, pushes the mediocre songs surrounding it below its own stratosphere. “Don’t look down, just cross the bridge,” Oberst sings, while something like thunder sounds in the background. “And when you get there, you’ll be glad you did.”

Upside Down Mountain is, in essence less a cohesive album (like I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning) than a mixed collection of folk-pop songs. Which isn’t a bad thing if we get a few Conor Oberst jewels out of the deal. “You Are Your Mother’s Son,” a sort of traditional folk song that we’ve come to associate Oberst with, is a moment of peace, a lighthouse, amidst the ocean of noise that most of the record is. It feels strange to hear Oberst broach such a cliché subject, an almost Cat Stevens-ish folk song that takes us from the birth of a child up through a graduation. But each chord change reminds us of Oberst’s lyrical and songwriting power.

All of this may sound negative, and it’s not meant to, because Upside Down Mountain is still salt and peppered with those moments in music, either a line of lyrics or a chord change or a pointed, staccato guitar that make your heart go a pitter patter, a phenomenon that’s quite common with Oberst’s music but relatively rare in other music. While some of Oberst’s material requires you to dig into it to find it’s center, its greatness, this album toes the line in perfect balance between instantly lovable pop song and deep inaccessible art. (Much of Oberst’s work with The Mystic Valley Band tends to fall into the former category.)

The whole “redefining yourself as an artist” is the complex issue at stake here. But do we really care? At 34, “The mouthpiece of the generation” label, the Dylan comparisons, have since left him, and this album seems to assure us he’s more than okay with this. “Till then I’m walking out the door,” Oberst sings in “Lonely at the Top.” “Till then I’m runnin’ through the airport / Til then I’m waitin’ round for no one.” There’s so much “movin’ on” talk throughout the album, so much growing up and progressing and changing, but it seems to us, the listener, that Oberst is fine just where he is.

The crazy thing is that Oberst is still writing moving, poetic and catchy songs; the same caliber songs he was releasing fifteen years ago. You may have to wade through some forgettable ones on the way, but in this case, it’s worth it.

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