Conor Oberst - Upside Down Mountain | Album Review | By Volume

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Conor Oberst

Upside Down Mountain

The peak of a towering career.

Comments (2)
Author: on May 21, 2014
8.9
Nonesuch Records

It’s lonely at the top of that upside-down mountain; watch the sun rise from a window in this room.” Conor Oberst is wide awake and it’s morning again, fully grounded after the astral aspirations of The People’s Key — a mission beyond this earth’s gravity, which we must now assume was more about burning off excess fuel than some profound exploration. Disappeared as quickly as they burst into existence are its cosmic allusions and Big Bangs, but Upside Down Mountain is more than Oberst’s return to a familiar trail after a misguided detour. The Bright Eyes man — no longer a boy — has been wandering an uneasy path since his eponymous self-titled album in 2008, a record which appeared to build an accidental monument to his folk-pop songs of old. Perhaps The People’s Key was an attempt to avoid blasphemy in this regard; whatever it was, it wasn’t Bright Eyes as anybody knew it.

How strange, then, that on Upside Down Mountain he returns to the earthy, mildly echoed tones of his 2005 magnum opus I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, as though mission control has finally found its sense of gravity after nine years. Oberst has seemed to struggle, through projects adorned by the Mystic Valley Band label, his own name, and the Bright Eyes moniker, to come to terms with his self-sufficiency as a songwriter — as though, tracks as sonically simple as “Lua” now needed to be offset by more daring terrains. Here, he swings back around to the staples of that grown-up sound he uncovered on Wide Awake, though mellower still; there is none of “At The Bottom of Everything”, even in more adamant tracks like “Kick”. Everything about 2014 Oberst feels composed, introspective and, to a degree, settled, and it’s stunning.

Though it’s not actually the case, it feels as though Upside Down Mountain manages to cover the full spectrum of human experience in its thirteen songs. The foreground is one constructed from honest, wearied yearning — Oberst’s lilt, matured here beyond its early fragility, lends itself to such a tone — but the characters and worlds that he builds, simple as they are and adorned as they may be by the simplest of pedal steel guitars and acoustic riffs, are beautifully cinematic, as the focus swings from material to psychological and back around. Like always with Oberst, there are few one-liners on Upside Down Mountain. That’s not the way his songwriting makes its mark. Instead, there are myriad phrases and sentiments which, taken in context, are heart-rending, betraying some universal truth only to question that sort of concept on closer “Common Knowledge”.

It’s not an album to lose your shit to like Lifted. Oberst keeps his voice and his gorgeous backdrop on the rails, and takes heed as “You Are Your Mother’s Child” urges, “life’s a roller coaster, keep your arms inside.” When “Governor’s Ball” turns all drugged-up in its second verse, it’s the first musically left-field idea, and it stretches outside the most elaborate track at number 11. So Upside Down Mountain doesn’t fly off its hinges, it doesn’t fall from its balance beam. It walks with a degree of certainty, whose absence The People’s Key only masked, rising and falling with grace and poise. It still harbours the same hopelessly romantic streaks of early Bright Eyes, but delivered more eloquently and often in broader strokes.

The question, then, is what does it mean for Bright Eyes to have grown up? “Failure always sounded better” to Oberst, but does it still sound better to us after he’s moved on? The brilliance of Upside Down Mountain is that its direct voice and simplicity beg no suspension of disbelief in order to embrace this new, self-assured aesthetic. The generation that Oberst was always meant to be the voice for was never as fully-formed as every one of his admirers pretended; his writing was always more personal, more specific than that, and it remains so well into his thirties as he writes about death, coming to terms with yourself, and — above all — love. Upside Down Mountain stands alongside Wide Awake as the pinnacle of Oberst’s lyricism and melodycraft. It feels, in a strange way, like the end of an era, the grounding, if you will, of an arc. It feels like home.

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  • Rudy

    this reminded me more of Cassadaga than it’s wide awake, but that’s ok – cassadaga is my favorite bright eyes. really dug this although he’s been playing a bunch of these songs live for years. easily his best since the self-titled imo

    • Adam Knott

      I gotta agree. I like Cassadaga too, and his self-titled is a superb record. It feels like a record with some unearthed antiques in it, for sure. It’s so chill.

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