Sitting on a giant boulder in Central Park while the sunlight began to dim against the trees, I listened to Conor Oberst’s new album Upside Down Mountain and confronted the inflating story lines of my life. Oberst, known mostly for Bright Eyes, but also Desaparecidos, Monsters of Folk, the group with Jim James, Mike Mogis and M. Ward, and other offshoots, has been singing his whole career about the full-fledged emotional toll that can weigh on one life.
Like all important songwriters, they allow you to decipher the life and times of their own period, but offer the chance to see yourself in their story. On Upside Down Mountain Oberst paintstakingly seeks a life without conflict or stress. Early into “Time Forgot,” he sings, “I wanna walk in that howling wind ’til it scatters all my thoughts / Sit all alone on that riverbank ’til I forget that I can talk.”
“Artifact #1” moves like a single breeze through an empty canyon. “The only [question] that even matters is when I see your face again,” Oberst laments, with the aching restraint of letting someone go, then never being able to find them. “I keep looking back for artifact to prove that you were here.” If the words don’t get to you, the shimmering guitar barreling into that untraceable tunnel to the soul, will.
“Lonely at the Top” is a moper with brushes slowly falling onto the snare head just to get back up again. “There is no dignity in love,” he sings, putting the prospect of one-on-one bliss into the air. “Id’ trade every scrap to get some absolution,” he continues, “’til then I’m walking out the door / ’til then I’m running through the airport / ’til then I’m waiting around for no one.”
The boy-wonder squall of his voice has not withered or hardened at all with his age. At 34 his voice can still fall on the microphone like a feather, but also shiver into a bark or an unwinding wail. His heavy heart still weighs on each line’s delivery.
For a guy actively making music since age 13, becoming a local hero, then quickly a national one, Upside Down Mountain starts to fully embrace some old-age, big-picture wisdom. There is a heavy dose of contemplation in solitude. Oberst finds comfort in a steady, unchanging home on, “Double Life.” “You Are Your Mother’s Child,” possibly one of the sweetest in his discography, instantly pushes to the edge of tears.
It’s not all meandering, slow-simmering folk ripple, though. “Kick” blends heavy country-rock twang with a hillbilly romp. “Zigzagging Toward the Light,” the first proper single, is lite alt-country pop with an unexpected psych-blues guitar torpedo at the end. “Governor’s Ball” gets the full band out for a rollicking walk down the boardwalk. The horns barbecue and skittering piano keys spin through the headphones.
Upside Down Mountain is Conor Oberst’s best, fullest, song-to-song release since I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning in 2005 as Bright Eyes. (That’s not meant to discredit the Monsters of Folk collaboration, or his first proper solo, self-titled album in 2008–both wonders on their own.)
The recording sessions for Upside Down Mountain returned to the Midwest–in Omaha, Nebraska and Nashville, Tennessee–and in turn, salted the sound with a little more country flavor. It is a subtle and more substantially mature album by Conor Oberst protocol. There is no throat-searing crescendos or guitar strings de-tuning and snapping. There are no screams coming from the bathroom floor after the blind consumption of pills and wine in the aftermath of some lover’s quarrel.
On “Common Knowledge” Oberst watches the unfortunate destruction of a drunken friend unfold before him. “She moves like a chocolate fountain / Pouring, spilling all around him / Makes him wonder what else she can do / How bittersweet is love’s illusion / Feelings that cannot be proven.” Oberst is the spectator, no longer the internal agitator. He’s still heartbroken, somber maybe more so, but within these songs there is a sense of peace discovered, maybe not always attainable but; Conor Oberst is finding comfort with his lot in life even if the world around him is drenched in sadness.