Release Date: May 19, 2014
Record label: Nonesuch
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
Upside Down Mountain is a great album from beginning to end—relaxed, assured and understated in its presentation. At first it may be hard to figure out what’s so appealing about Conor Oberst’s latest album. After all, he doesn’t have the best singing voice in the world—he’s no Jim James when it comes to nailing a vocal. But, his style is honest and convincing, and I like to hear him sing.
If Conor Oberst continues to release albums like Upside Down Mountain, then sooner or later he’s going to start getting talked about as being one amongst the greats. Because what the ex-Bright Eyes man does on his umpteenth record is re-affirm his often ambivalent personality, one which has come of age over his illustrious 20 year long career. That personality may not be one which is easily warmed to.
“Sometimes I get mistaken for this actor/I guess that I can see it from the side/Maybe no one really seems to be the person that they mean to be/I hope that I am forgotten when I die.” With lyrics like those, Oberst won’t be. The ever-loquacious monster of folk has a lot to say on his latest record (this one finds him particularly obsessed with time), but it’s his growing mastery of orchestration that muzos might appreciate the most. A tip of the cap to Jonathan Wilson, who curated the sound in Nashville—and a round of applause for Oberst.
When Conor Oberst was 19, he wrote and recorded the third Bright Eyes album, the melancholy and magnificent ‘Fevers And Mirrors’. As tortured and angst-ridden as it was, it possessed a lyrical, musical and thematic depth that was way beyond his years. Almost a decade and a half later, it remains his masterpiece. He’s come close, namely on Bright Eyes’ ‘Lifted…’ and ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’, as well as the acerbic politipunk of the Desaparecidos side-project.At times, much of the rest of his vast discography has come off as pastiche – especially when indulging his passion for country music.
Known for his prolific pen, Conor Oberst slowed down in the new millennium, enjoying his tours with the Monsters of Folk but generally staying away from albums of new songs; even Outer South, his last album with the Mystic Valley Band, was littered with contributions by his bandmates. This makes his 2014 album Upside-Down Mountain noteworthy -- it's his first collection of original material since 2008's eponymous effort for Merge, and it's also the first record since to be billed to him alone. Another, perhaps more important, first is that Upside-Down Mountain is his first record for a major label, appearing on the tony Warner imprint Nonesuch Records and feeling like it belongs.
"I'm blessed with a heart that doesn't stop," Conor Oberst declares in a still-boyish voice in the aptly titled "Zigzagging Toward the Light." At 34, the former indie-rock prodigy still writes and sings about the high times and bad choices of adolescence, on the way to matured love and responsibility, like the sharpest kid in the room: a florid Midwest Morrissey with Jeff Tweedy's twisted-pop savvy. "What a time to live among the ashen remnants of a love/That came before," Oberst sings in "Hundreds of Ways," against a sambalike sway, country guitar and brass. "I'm still looking for that now," he adds eagerly.
Oberst has clearly changed his mind since he declared himself "really burnt out on that rootsy Americana shit", before the release of 2011's poppy The People's Key. Upside Down Mountain casts him as road-worn troubadour, his ragged vocals set largely to acoustic guitar or blue-collar riffs, and occasional harmonies from Swedish folk sisters First Aid Kit. It's an approach that does him no harm; melodies emerge strongly from these simple musical settings and there's little to distract from his lyrics, which explore solitude and regret - those hoary old staples of US road music - in rich and inventive ways.
Making the transition from wunderkind to respected veteran is never an easy one in music, even for the most talented artists. For Conor Oberst, relinquishing for long periods of time his status as indie-rock’s most eloquent oversharer was his way of accomplishing this. By occasionally burying himself in a sea of genre experiments and side projects to cleanse his palette, he’s able to occasionally emerge from under those guises for a more pointed singer-songwriter statement every now and again.
The last time I saw Conor Oberst play was in a packed-out venue in Paris’s Bastille neighbourhood early last year, just before he joined up with his recently reunited Desaparecidos outfit to tour the UK and Ireland. I missed those shows, but Paris went a long way towards making up for it. In a relaxed, playful mood, Oberst delivered a career-spanning set, also encompassing a couple of songs that would go on to feature on Upside Down Mountain.
Head here to submit your own review of this album. Since cleaning up his act around the time of Bright Eyes' 2007 album Cassadaga, their leader Conor Oberst has been more prolific than ever, indulging seemingly every whim, while also trying to appease his fans. His best album in the period was his first self-titled solo album from 2008. Since then he indulged himself by releasing Outer South with the Mystic Valley Band which, while sounding fun, seemed to water down his writing prowess.
Next year will mark 10 years since Conor Oberst released what is arguably his last great collection of music, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Little made since that album has inspired confidence that another album could match it. I’m Wide Awake marked the end of a pretty remarkable run, which included Oberst’s album with Desaparecidos, Read Music/Speak Spanish, and the Bright Eyes albums Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground and Fevers and Mirrors, plus a wealth of EPs, singles, collaborations, and the like.
Conor Oberst is a 34-year old married man. He’s been a musician in the public eye for nearly half of his life, and over the past decade, he’d be most accurately described as a folk artist. His latest album Upside Down Mountain is being released on Nonesuch, a label whose release slate includes the Black Keys, Natalie Merchant, and Nickel Creek. The cover art is designed by one of the guys in the Felice Brothers, and he’ll be trekking around the country with Dawes.
For someone who long ago stepped out from behind the ambiguity of his best-known moniker, Bright Eyes – be it with The Mystic Valley Band or Monsters Of Folk – Conor Oberst sure is a tricky one to pin down. But fear not, help is at hand on this, his second album under his own name, and on which he claims to be returning to the “personal, intimate” style of songwriting that brought him to attention all those years ago (well, from 1995 onwards). What’s misleading about this statement, however, is the music behind it: so layered, absorbing as it often does world influences and off-kilter rhythms, sharp bursts of unexpected sound and even the occasional meandering 80s cul de sac.
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.
Conor Oberst sounds as though he has been slowly stepping away from the musical quirks he used to capture the indie rock community's attention way back when. Reserved in word count, less emphatic on delivery, and more polished in production, Upside Down Mountain almost feels un-ironic..
Conor Oberst should be irritating. That pained expression, that meaningful stare, that paper-thin voice, all hurt and strained – it should grate, especially with the songs on latest album ‘Upside Down Mountain’ bordering on pop in their cliched chord sequences and andante, upbeat, foot-tapping percussion. But it’s a surprising pleasure. With this powerful flame of positivity burning within, Oberst possesses an uplifting energy that suits him well.After a stomping opening couple of tracks, ‘Hundreds of Ways’ is more like the quivering, wordy Oberst we know and love, but there’s still plenty of jaunty bass to keep us on our toes.
On Conor Oberst's early material as Bright Eyes, he seemed to be teetering on the brink of oblivion, his tortured tales of depression, drinking and drugs delivered via quivering whimpers and anguished howls. But judging by his latest solo album, Upside Down Mountain, he seems have quieted his demons. This country-flecked batch of songs is emotionally even-keeled, so even when he addresses death and solitude — which he still does frequently — it's with a quiet sense of resignation.
Conor Oberst, the wunderkind who began recording original songs long before he was old enough to drive, has made a career out of plumbing the darkest recesses of his psyche and channeling the often disturbing insights he finds into hyper-literate folk confessionalism. As a lyricist, he has a knack for spine-chilling turns of phrase that twist familiar sentiments like lust and boredom into surprising new shapes: “Layin' in your bed, my dreams are sex and violence/I chase the rapist chasin' after you,” he deadpans on “Lonely at the Top,” a track from his new album, Upside Down Mountain. Given his penchant for the macabre, the album's opening songs signal something like an emotional spring cleaning, a resolution to find balance and simplicity amid the psychological tumult that his lyrics have often channeled.
To the uninitiated, the recorded output of Conor Oberst can prove both bounteous and overwhelming. He is a teenage prodigy-turned-adult singer-songwriter who has already written hundreds of songs and released nearly two dozen albums over a twenty year period. At the age of 34, he shows few signs of pausing for half time oranges like The Rolling Stones in the 1990s.
Releasing music as Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, Mystic Valley Band, Monsters of Folk, and under his own name, Conor Oberst has long exhibited an affinity for reinvention. One thing remains consistent, however, and it’s abundant on his latest: a raw laying bare of emotion delivered with a poet’s ear for lyrical specificity. “Home is a perjury, a parlor trick, an urban myth,” he sings on “Zigzagging Toward the Light,” a song whose bounce belies its sense of displacement.
“There are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of ways to get through the day — just find one,” Conor Oberst counsels on his new solo album, “Upside Down Mountain.” Mr. Oberst may not have hundreds of styles, but he’s multifarious enough. His hugely prolific career now extends more than ….
At no point in his ongoing journey from Omaha to enlightenment has Conor Oberst professed to have all the answers. Each of his albums—and he’s released a ton, mostly under the Bright Eyes banner—is about struggling to understand God, love, ghosts, politics, outer space, fame, and growing up, and the best he’s come up with so far is a strategy. If Oberst can just throw enough words at life’s big mysteries, he might hit some hidden bull’s-eye and have a revelation.
opinion byMICHAEL WOJTAS In the classic singer-songwriter’s trinity of guitar, voice and words, there’s plenty of room for the artful disguising of one’s shortcomings. Consider the world-class misery of Leonard Cohen, who kept his melodies hypnotically simple and his sing-speak delivery simpler yet, allowing his peerlessly literate lyrics the spotlight they deserved. Or, for a contemporary example, look at Kurt Vile.