Upside Down Mountain Leaves Nothing More to Climb
Conor Oberst’s days of shouting for timpani rolls are over, and it’s probably for the best. If you’ve remained a devoted fan of the songwriter over the years, you probably recall crooning the sappy one-liners scattered throughout the songs in Lifted and much of his earlier work. Maybe you even screamed along until your voice cracked, thinking, “this guy gets me.” Now you’ve matured, and Oberst is right there with you. The new solo album, Upside Down Mountain, marks a definite growth in the songwriter’s career. Crafted with his most accessible and conversational lyrics, the release wavers between lively, calypso-influenced pop anthems featuring upbeat horns and slow, soft songs pulled by devastating minor-key melodies. Once or twice Oberst teeters too far over the edge of sentimentality, but mostly the lyrics in Upside Down Mountain remain tender and refreshingly candid.
The album opens with “Time Forgot,” a song illustrative of the zenned-out tone of the release and the first of many impressive melodies. Rather than lamenting on lost loves and insecurities, it seems Oberst has made peace with himself. “I wanna walk in that howling wind ‘til it scatters all my thoughts,” he sings. “Sit all alone on the river bank ‘til I forget that I can talk. Just listen.” These days the songwriter prefers a space for intimate reflection to an overwhelming jumble of anxieties and self-doubts. The album’s first single, “Hundreds of Ways,” sounds like a caribbean country song with its fast-paced rhythmic guitar and exultant harmonies. Following a content lead in, Oberst wishes to shed his reputation as he sings “I hope I am forgotten when I die.” This moment, and many times throughout the album, the songwriter shows he is merely a human who shares the same doubts as everyone else.
Two of my favorite songs on the album, “Enola Gay” and “Kick,” are character sketches. “Kick” describes the hypothetical existence of a cursed-by-name Kennedy and sympathizes with the detriments of fame. In “Enola Gay,” Oberst justifies and forgives a disagreeable drunk. “There’s no harm in steppin’ to the side,” Oberst sings. “It’s just a matter of pride til you vanish like the rest, out of sight and out of mind.” Even in these tracks, where Oberst is less emotionally direct and not as forthcoming about the intended message, he still manages to sneak it in. “Governor’s Ball,” the fullest sounding song on the album, features a horn section composed by Bright Eyes’ member, Nate Walcott, the magical sister harmonies of First Aid Kit, and a quick ragtime keyboard bit. Everything about “Governor’s Ball” fits as it swells and breaks, leading into the two remaining songs, “Desert Island Questionnaire” and “Common Knowledge.”
I’ve always loved Conor Oberst for his shamelessness, his ability to bear it all in a consoling voice, shaking with heartache, so the idea of an emotionally stable album was strange at first. I guess I assumed that if Oberst could cure his emotional distress, he’d just be another boring dude with a guitar. Listening to this album, I reimagined him as a stable, functioning adult whose cultivated happiness produced a careful and deliberate album free of cryptic metaphors and overbearing sensitivity. Upside Down Mountain ventures far from the first, self-titled solo album, centered heavily on escape and travel. Compared to the 2008 release, where Oberst reiterated “there’s nothing that the road cannot heal,” as a mantra, this new release seems, for the most part, hoping to stay put. It is clear Oberst is on the second wind of his career, and Upside Down Mountain highlights the songwriter’s mature transition to a realm separate from his emo-lord, Bright Eyes frontman days. Not all musicians age well, and the shift is especially unexpected coming from an artist who was so sad to begin with, but Oberst isn’t concerned with the opinions of others or even if things are right side up. He made it clear a long time ago that he doesn’t read the reviews, and why should he? He’s doing just fine on his own.