Over the past twenty years, Nebraska native Conor Oberst has released over twenty albums. Nearly half of that output was issued by the indie outfit Bright Eyes, with the other half split between solo releases & various acts including the Mystic Valley Band, Monsters of Folk, Desaparecidos, & Commander Venus. Maintaining a discography that prolific is career-defining in & of itself, but what’s even more impressive is the fact that Oberst has achieved this level of production by a mere 34 years of age?! To put this into context, compare another songwriter equally profuse, Bruce Springsteen. The Boss has also released twenty plus albums to date, but in his case, this has been paced out over a forty year span – clearly nothing to sneeze at, but it does go to show the expedited eccentricity of Conor & Company’s revolving door-like record cycle.
As one might expect, writing, recording, releasing, & touring records on a yearly basis would wear down even the most trail-tried of troubadours. Anyone familiar enough with the content of Conor’s folklore will notice reoccurring themes of well-worn despair, often expressed from a state of transition. Parables & plotlines are generally slow-cooked in a Nihilistic soup of neurosis, & occasionally paired with the mystic pangs of a hopeless romantic:
“to the sunrise or a sunset, the master & his servant have exactly the same fate
it’s a sunrise & a sunset, from a cradle to a casket – there is no way to escape
the sunrise & a sunset, hold your sadness like a puppet – keep putting on the play…”
With two decade’s worth of macabre musings like these, it long seemed as though this Nebraskan purveyor of poetic pessimism would ne’er find his silver lining… at least not until this year’s release of Upside Down Mountain.
For his ninth installment as “Conor Oberst”, & his first via Nonesuch Records, a sentiment towards settlement is the prevailing motif. No time is wasted in expressing this idea with the opener Time Forgot, as we’re welcomed with warm jangly acoustics, bouncy double bass, & cascading guitar lines. Where in albums past we were inundated with cynical confessionals, we now collide with positive pronouncements by the final chorus – I’m going to work for my sanity, give it everything I’ve got, though so far I have cheated death, I know someday I’ll get caught, just living. So here we go man, it’s beautiful.
This satisfactory tone is carried over into Zigzagging Towards the Light, as we adapt to changing circumstances with a Mary Jane’s Last Dance-like progression. Oberst describes his big city life as a world of smoke, steel, compromise, & meter maids, one which he’ll be leaving soon in hopes to find a place to come undone. While this careening path away from darkness likely entails a physical destination, it’s also indicative of a disposition. Cue Hundreds of Ways, with a temperament that rides in on a country western trot & eventually culminates with quasi-Caribbean colorings. This demeanor is delineated with humbled perspective as we’re told of how it took centuries to build these twisted cities & seconds to reduce them down to dust. In correlation, this contrast between exigency & ease is echoed by the quip: I used to think that time was of the essence, now I just wish I could get some sleep. By the end of this trailway’s many syllogisms, we’re left with a fittingly simple layman’s logic – there are hundreds of ways to get through the day, just find one. After all the conjecturing, having elapsed through the first quarter of the record, we finally come to the theme that ultimately ties all of this progress together in Artifact #1.
With its ‘laxed Latin groove, track four cuts to the heart of… well, the heart. Having been recently married himself, Oberst expresses this grounding commitment with the ponderance: when I set myself to wonder on all the questions that remain, the only one that even matters is when I’ll see your face again. The calm, yet moody ambience of Artifact’s tone gives weight to its tender sentimentality, & transitions nicely into its counterpoint Lonely at the Top. Descending on a slow six count with snare brushes, clean chorused guitar, & lofty pedal steel, the soundscape moves through time like a lonesome southern breeze. Orson Welles once stated that we’re born alone, we live alone, & we die alone, & it’s only through love & friendship that we create momentary illusions that we’re in fact not alone. Truths of this caliber are a jagged pill, yet upon reflection, they provide context & relevance to the relationships & experiences that define each of us amid our autonomous ascent up this so called inverted mountain otherwise known as the human condition. This idea is reiterated as Oberst unwinds the line: freedom is the opposite of love, you’ll never keep it through the paranoia. It may well be lonely at the top, but it’s at these zeniths where we’re able to gain a new perspective, one that trades the freedom of reckless abandon for the sacrifice of committed love. As we near the centerpiece of this 13 sequence summit, Oberst drops a bomb with Enola Gay.
Taking its title reference from the Boeing B-29 aircraft made infamous for dropping the atomic bomb during World War II, Oberst cleverly delivers one of the record’s most pointed criticisms wrapped in a chic top 40 Nashville pop veneer. Despite its duration of just over two minutes, Conor carefully constructs the egocentric workings of a narcissist just to obliterate all vanity with one line: it’s just a matter of pride ‘till you vanish like the rest, out of sight & out of mind. Carried by an ascending piano scale, the climbing refrain ends abruptly, further emphasizing themes of modesty in the midst of mortality, a stark reminder that our lives too could end suddenly at any given moment. This surprise ending lends itself to an unexpected beginning with Double Life. Courtesy of producer Jonathan Wilson, a whimsical 1970’s stoner rock slide guitar melody casually meanders over sparse acoustics. It’s worth noting at this point that Wilson’s knack for animated slide guitar largely aids the sense of sonic semblance throughout Upside Down Mountain, & provides a tonal consistency that helps tie songs together – songs which otherwise might seem aurally divergent from one another on the whole. The same can be said for Swedish sister act First Aid Kit, whose lush vocal harmonies prove to be one of the record’s most notable cohesive highlights. Both these trappings are on full display regarding Double Life, as Oberst suggests that we don’t look down, just cross the bridge, followed by the assurance that when you get there, you’ll know why you did. So with promises of a better life on the other side, we cross over to the second half of Upside.
Featuring a fix of fuzzed out guitar & saturated spring reverb, Kick would fit in nicely with Bright Eyes’ 2011 release, The People’s Key. Whereas that record dealt with quasi sci-fi abstractions, Kick holds its thematic footing while tackling the topic of taming thrills. By personifying pleasure, Oberst walks us though a discussion with “Kick”, who is still a kid, & whose diet is too full of additives; a passed-out ash-mouthed daydreamer who can’t seem to find a friend in a world so cruel & partisan. But alas, as HG Wells put it, there are truth’s we must grow into. One such growing pain might reside in learning the difference between pleasure & happiness, a difference Oberst includes as part of life’s richness, suggesting that if young Kick can avoid mental traffic collisions, he just might find a way out. In this case, finding a way out will likely entail finding a way inward. Night at Lake Unknown could be described as a meditative mediation. Its pace & production is calm & languid. Its phraseology is lined with pensive inferences citing imagination, frame, concentration, extension, & mind. Oberst concedes the negative not through avoidance, but through alignment as we’re guided by a wind-blown raft at Lake Unknown; drifting… floating… centered in an acceptance that most anything can be forgiven, & with what’s left we’ll have to live. These broad strokes won’t yield much specific detail, but they do paint a larger picture. In the same way a photomosaic can only be realized at a distance, life too is sometimes best viewed as collection of impressionistic moments rather than a singular whole. What better way to conceptualize this tapestry than with the analogy of adolescence?
Much like Cat Stevens did with the 1970’s folk favorite Father & Son, Conor crafts You Are Your Mother’s Child to achieve maximum sentimentality by way of simple structure. Anchored only by acoustic guitar & vocals, Oberst outlines assorted moments from adolescence though adulthood, all narrated from a father’s perspective – I remember the day you appeared on this earth, with eyes like the ocean, got blood on my shirt, from my camera angle it looked like it hurt, but your mama had a big ol’ smile. Landmark references to illness & injury, holidays & hobbies, achievements & affections all thread a theme of love & letting go; our love is a protective poison, well you are your mother’s child, & she’ll keep you for a while, but someday you’ll be grown, & then you’ll be on your own. It’s only fitting that Upside Down Mountain’s most minimal offering is directly followed by its most magnanimous. Governor’s Ball is a sonic minibar, stocked with overdriven guitars, tom-heavy drum fills, choral backup vocals, saloon piano, & even a brass section?! Furthermore, its subject matter is intricately equivalent to its instrumentation. We’re told of a man & his caravan of friends who attend a well-managed Governor’s Ball with stages that more closely resemble a vending machine than an amphitheater, which of course houses an audience more stereotypical than a brick wall. As the story arcs, our protagonist submits to his boredom with a why not-attitude, eventually landing him with an all-night search party & a black eye. The inquiry of why not is followed by what if in Upside Down Mountain’s strongest offering, Desert Island Questionnaire.
We’ve all heard the question – say that you were stranded on a desert island, what books you gonna bring? What friends would tag along? Say you had a month & you knew you were dying, how would you spend your time? What goodbyes would take too long? But instead clichés, Oberst takes exception & opines, who wants all this trouble, even hypothetical? For those of you wondering where the sullen son of emo angst has been all this time, brace yourself, because the tone’s been set & we’re going down with the plane. For the sake of beating a dead metaphor, DIQ’s central theme is one of communicative failure in the face of modernity. Clean electric guitar moves in a melancholic metre as Conor’s reverb-soaked vocals fill out the vast negative space. Drums kick in at the onset of the second verse with a half-time march as Oberst depicts the irony of isolation within a social context – staring at your phone at another party, spend a lot on clothes got a lot of skin to show… wish that you could dance but you’ve got no partner, keep tapping on your glass because you want to make a toast to the ennui of our times, to the selfishness in everyone you know. Conor then takes us from the interrelational context of disjointed communication to the meta-context, with a bleak commentary on the displaced nature of divine command theory citing that every lunatic must be well intentioned, sets himself apart, he’s an instrument of God. Oberst goes on to outline the abduction of a girl who’s taken from the playground to the farmhouse cellar to be kissed & killed by the hands of a Good Samaritan. This venerated rationale not only affects the instrument in question, but also those injured as the victim’s mother loops modality back to God after the finding of her would be 21 year old daughter’s body many autumns after the murder, assuming that although we lost her young, the good Lord has a plan for all of us. In tying up this travailed trilogy, Oberst takes us from the interpersonal, to the meta-personal, to the personal as he articulates the cleft between ego & agency. With the need of something to blame for this human nature, Conor caustically questions is that what this condition is? He admits that while he’s so bored with his life, he’s still afraid to die. This concession brings us full circle back to the plane crash metaphor, which apparently isn’t quite dead yet. Pretend that you were stranded on a desert island, what would be the message that you’d spell out for the plane? Say the engine failed when that plane was flying, if you were the pilot, would you curse or would you pray? Nestled at the conclusion of a nearly six minute metonymy, themes of basal correspondence & epistemic modality are dispiritedly raised one final time. Oberst offers no answer, instead lamenting that no one’s gonna cry at this John Doe funeral, not a lot to say, didn’t even have a name. He closes with a weary considerance, light a candle just in case he was someone’s friend; throw some flowers on his grave.
For Upside Down Mountain’s closing track, Conor leaves us with some Common Knowledge, as he unfurls observations about this friend of his; a suspiciously analogous parallel of himself. He’s my friend, but he’s no friend to me. Ask him why, he’ll tell you casually. Washed up, bitter, broken, busted. Backstabbed everyone he trusted. Says he sees what no one else can see. Oberst objectifies each shortcoming with an affirmation to cap each verse; Holds onto his mind just like a kite, but a good strong wind will keep you honest, fill you with some common knowledge, things when we were young we never tried. Just figured we had time, with such a long life. This self-assessment in third person allows Oberst to embody both the role of our central character in addition to that of a removed narrator, giving the impression of a man looking back over the events of his life while said events are being lived out in real time. The duality of this nostalgic, yet present tone is further aided by the production’s minimalism which consists mainly of dry acoustics, un-layered vocals, & sparsely ambient soundscaping. Conor concludes with reference to Hemingway, forthrightly stating that a brand new life can lose its luster, troubles tend to find each other, call it luck or you can call it fate. But either way, it’s how it happens, not the life that you imagined, so just go out with a bang like Hemingway. Some will say you’re brave, some will say you ain’t. The album ends in provincial contrast to its beginnings, from sanguine to saturnine – as if the tonal shift was turned upside down; as if we had scaled a mountain from the summit.
Upside Down Mountain excels in its ability to elevate accessible americana folk rock to an altitude that’s as immediate as it is intellectual. It’s able to achieve precision without pretension. Even twenty albums into his career, Conor Oberst is still able to actualize novelty, & there’s most certainly nothing upside down about that that.