Conor Oberst - Upside Down Mountain

Oberst possesses an uplifting energy that suits him well.

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. And let’s not dismiss the darned optimism of the whole thing: ‘There are hundreds of ways to get through the day,/ There are hundreds of ways – now you just find one’. He’ll have a self-help book out next.

A lack of percussion and the addition of slide guitar and subtle layering of Oberst’s vocals make ‘Artifact ♯1’ far more familiar, but although it tells of longing for something that previously existed, there is no sense that it is lost forever – just that it is temporarily missing, and that it will be retrieved in time. What could have been a song about loss and regret is delivered as one of hope.

‘Lonely At The Top’ is a deliciously slow track that sees Oberst dig down deep in his signature nasal tone and within which, woven in among its country crooning, lurk some dark thoughts: ‘Laying in your bed, my dreams are sex and violence / I chase the rapist chasing after you’. Things get a bit more mainstream with ‘Double Life’, a song whose lyrical predictability causes it to lack real purpose or momentum.

But ‘Kick’ and ‘Night at Lake Unknown’ make up a dual highlight on the record; the former fuses the vigorous enthusiasm of other tracks with Oberst’s talent for raw, unusual words and their delivery. The latter babbles away like a small waterfall in a zen garden and, while it’s not exactly breaking any ground, it grabs your attention and forces you to listen with some memorable lines: ‘When I can’t sleep, my mind’s a circle – I watch the ceiling fan./ I close my eyes and I feel the wind blow – my bed, it turns into a raft’.

Things get a little confused towards the end of the record. ‘You Are Your Mother’s Child’ charts the life of a child told from a parent’s perspective, from jaundiced baby to independent adult, and all of the stages that encompasses. ‘Governor’s Ball’ is an ballsy rock song that suffers again from a few forced rhymes and a lack of real direction. The final two tracks of the album, ‘Desert Island Questionnaire’ and ‘Common Knowledge’ are both quieter, slower tracks that perfectly diminuendo the experience out and leave .

Although ‘Upside Down Mountain’ could do with a little more lyrical variety and structural experimentation, it is strong. Oberst travels further into ground that he’s previously edged towards, and his sweet, heartfelt lyrics suit this more energetic approach. He is careful not to lose the vulnerability and vocal closeness that have always made his music so appealing – which is crucial to the album’s success.

Tags: Conor Oberst, Reviews, Album Reviews

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