Album Reviews

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain

on May 19, 2014, 12:02am
Conor Oberst - Upside Down Mountain B
Release Date
May 20, 2014
Label
Nonesuch
Formats
digital, vinyl, cd

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. In fact, Oberst was so prolific that he released a second full-length on the same day as I’m Wide Awake, the less classic but still quite good Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Since 2005, Oberst has remained prolific, but has offered up a steady stream of spotty efforts, not without the occasional fleck of gold, but all suggesting the same conclusion: that Conor Oberst, the former songwriting prodigy whose songs as a teenager were better than most professionals would ever write, wasn’t aging as gracefully or masterfully as we had hoped.

This happens in the arts and makes sense, whether because of increased dependencies, recovery from dependencies, or losing touch with the emotional intensity that young people seem to have in spades. Burning out, they call it, but even if that is not the case, in regular life, we say people get boring as they get older. Oberst didn’t seem to be losing his knack for song structure or melody, just in his taste for arrangements and his lyrical content, and maybe adulthood had settled Oberst as it does to so many of our friends, maybe even ourselves.

Regardless, recent Oberst material sounds like he has lost touch with the fire that characterized his best work. Nothing has approached the rawness of the screaming at the end of “The Big Picture”, or his brutal honesty when obsessing over love, drugs, war, god, and loneliness. The arrangements then were usually simple and straightforward, while his words never seemed to be trying to be insightful, right, or caring whether he is biting Simon Joyner, but they often seemed more true because of that. Young Oberst, who started recording at 12, was uninhibited and uncompromising. Somewhere around Cassadaga, he started working in traditions, using tired, over-done arrangements, and seeming like he had less and less to say on his solo albums, work with Monsters of Folk, and 2011’s The People’s Key, his last full-length as Bright Eyes. On Upside Down Mountain, we see something return. Oberst is making music that seems necessary, like he has rediscovered a purpose for creating, and it is his best collection in a decade.

Before that excites you too much, know that it is not near the level he once was with Bright Eyes and still has some unfortunate flaws, mostly on the production and arranging level. The slick, withdrawn style of the album’s sound is noticeable about 20 seconds into opener “Time Forgot”. An acoustic strumming is fleshed out with a sauntering bass line, then a lead acoustic guitar and some Phil Collins-ish snare blasts in the chorus. Not only is nearly every sound besides the initial acoustic superfluous, but they work against the song and make lyrically sound and emotionally revealing songwriting feel less human. Except for the snare. That kind of rules.

People are calling the sound Oberst displays on Upside Down Mountain a “Laurel Canyon sound” revival, which is basically what Dawes (Oberst’s opener and backing band for his upcoming tour), Father John Misty, and Jenny Lewis, among others, have been pushing for years with varying levels of success. Johnathan Wilson, who does some production and guest musicianship with Oberst on the album, has worked with all of those artists, and maybe the tired, cliched production choices are Wilson’s doing, but they make the 34-year-old Oberst sound like he’s making music for his parents and their generation, who would fawn over the weepy pedal steel of the otherwise affecting “Double Life”, the wooden-snap percussion of “Artifact #1”, or even the horns led by Nate Walcott (always so tasteful in Bright Eyes) of “Hundreds of Ways”, a song that is way too ambling for its own good without the trumpet, and cartoonish with it.

The album suffers from sounding overwrought and too much like the generation that Oberst never used to trust. And it’s hard to accept someone we knew as a young, emotional songwriter in this relaxed, safe environment. But to solely dwell on this ignores the greatness that Oberst finds on Upside Down Mountain. “Artifact #1” displays this for the first time, with the song building to a climactic moment, with Oberst delivering the underscored line, his voice loose and wild, to where he is nearly shouting: “If I had tried to make you mine, you would have walked away/ Life can’t compete with memories, they never have to change.” The line is everything that Bright Eyes was loved for, brought back to life for a brief moment. And, as the album progresses, it proves to be a recurring feeling, an old friend making a welcome return.

The album’s best song, “Desert Island Questionnaire” stuffs its five-plus minutes with direct, thoughtful nuggets, as well as the album’s best musical moment, when Oberst and his backing singers (First Aid Kit on much of the album, but Corina Figueroa Escamilla here) go up an octave, only to be joined by Wilson on a glockenspiel that completes the arrangement perfectly. It’s a song with both surprises and a roadmap, like Oberst had a place he wanted to get to and saw the journey through until he got there. “I’m so bored with my life, but I’m still afraid to die,” he shouts as the song explodes, revealing a final verse of burning buildings and impending ruin that is Oberst at his ideal, like these thoughts were always under the surface and finally bubble to the top with fury.

“I suffered long for you,” Oberst goes on to say on “Common Knowledge”, and you can’t help but want his pain to stop; and if that’s what he has been doing over the past decade, with safer lyrics and duller arrangements, you can forgive Oberst every song. It’s unfair to want someone to be miserable just so his art might appeal more. That said, Upside Down Mountain shows that quality songcraft is still alive in Conor Oberst, and it is just a little bit of plastic surgery away from being relevant again. For now, though, Oberst at least has his first good album in years, and the songwriter’s narrative has a ways to go before we can judge whether he fulfilled all those expectations put on him 20 years ago when he was still a child.

Essential Tracks: “Desert Island Questionnaire”, “Artifact #1″, and “Common Knowledge”

7 comments

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Chris
May 24, 2014 at 4:21 am

I’ve listened to Oberst since the beginning, and I do agree that some of that angst from his earlier stuff is kind of, I guess dulled down, for lack of a better phrase. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown up with his music (we’re roughly the same age), but I don’t think he ever lost it. Obersts music has always spoken to me on an emotional level that few other artists have. When I was young and sad and angry, so was he. When I was scared to die and questioning god, he was there. When I drank to much, got dumped, dumped someone else, fell in love, had a kid, got older, all those things were reflected by Oberst music through the years. I thought the People’s Key was amazing. The new Desaparacidos stuff is so angst ridden it could easily be coming from a 20 year old kid, and the Mystic Valley Band albums were fun. Reviews are opinions, and I’m not dogging on yours, just coming to his defense a little.

Philip Cosores (@Philip_Cosores)
May 24, 2014 at 5:06 am

That’s fair Chris. And yes, reviews are opinions and I’ll never say someone is wrong for liking something or enjoying it or relating it. Usually, I’m a little jealous because I love loving music, and wish I felt that way about everything. But yeah, I don’t know why exactly where I stopped relating at a certain point, as I am a couple years younger than him and you. I guess I would say his early songs often felt like he was trying to write the best song ever, uninhibited, honest, bare. Later, he seemed more content to write music that didn’t go for broke, and yeah, it has always maintained a certain level of okay-ness, but sounded less like music that needed to be made, that flowed out of him, and more like stuff he had to work for. But yeah, Ladder Song is great, Haile Selassie.He’s done some great ones. One of the hardest things I have to do regularly as a music writer and a music fan is admit when a band I love has lost it, or appears to be losing it. Like, sometimes when a band rebounds and makes a good album after a couple meh ones, like I feel this Oberst one does, it is such a relief. It’s hard watching bands you love fade away. It’s harder having to be the bearer of bad news to a bunch or readers who aren’t going to believe you. Thanks for the comment and have a nice holiday.

garth
May 19, 2014 at 11:30 pm

Uh, you say he still has a knack for song structure, but not for arrangements… could you explain what you think the difference is?

Philip Cosores
May 19, 2014 at 11:52 pm

Sure, structure is like verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-chorus-coda, or 12 bar blues, and more specifically how the parts of a song play into each other, musically or lyrically. This is important in building tension, creating drama, emotional payoffs, surprises. All these things Oberst has always been great at. Arrangements is the choice on instrumentation based on the song that has already been written. Like, Oberst writes the song on guitar, then it is arranged for a band, then bullshit like a wooden block or whatnot is added in. Whether to use horns or strings or both, or to use piano or guitar, these are arrangement decisions. Does that make sense?

garth
May 20, 2014 at 12:08 am

Got ya. And I agree with you for the most part about the arrangements on this album, and from some of Conor’s more recent quotes I get the feeling he is slightly embarrassed about his past emo-ish tendencies and as a result has maybe overcompensated and ended up MOR. But you’re right, I dig those wet Collins drums too.

Philip Cosores
May 20, 2014 at 4:20 am

Yeah, and it is a shame when an artist views their younger work as immature. But he still plays a lot of the songs live, so he must not have too big of an issue with them. Lots of people he works with, like First Aid Kit and Jenny Lewis, manage to have a breezy 70’s California vibe without sounding dated or plotted, it is a bummer that this group of songs, which is legitimately strong, has to suffer.

Kathy
May 19, 2014 at 3:52 pm

I think Time Forgot is my favorite on the new album, but I agree the producer did not do him any favors. Too slick.

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