Friday, May 23, 2014

Gut Feeling: Conor Oberst - Upside Down Mountain

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain
Nonesuch, 2014
Where Bright Eyes ends and Conor Oberst ends escapes me, but operating under his given name seems to be a form of escape for Oberst. Whatever works, especially if the tunes are up to snuff. He’s been hit or miss since 2007, but even then the misses are still enjoyable, if forgettable. The highs (“Lenders in the Temple” from the excellent eponymous Conor Oberst record and Oberst’s masterpiece, Bright Eyes’ 2011 album The People’s Key) have been very, very high, featuring the sort of songwriting that makes you lightheaded. For the latest long player released under his given name, Oberst has ditched the Mystic Valley Band (a plus) and put out a record that is…pretty goddamn good.

Which is fine. As I said, The People’s Key was an absolute triumph in my book and Oberst can go 5-10 years without releasing an album of that caliber and I’d still listen to everything he put out. Where that album was a sloppy, beautiful mess crammed full of paranoia in the modern world, gorgeously articulated thoughts on spirituality, and some just straight-up catchy ass jams, Upside Down Mountain is very pleasant and a little forgettable. It’s nice. It’s not fair to compare the two albums, as they’re technically coming from two separate projects and Conor Oberst’s Conor Oberst stuff tilts toward the alt-country tones he brought to life on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. It’s also not fair to say that Upside Down Mountain is a snoozer through and through. “You Are Your Mother’s Child” is Oberst’s most earnest and unflinchingly emotion-inducing since “First Day of My Life.” In the song we watch a child grow up before his father’s eyes and even though I know the new dad part of me was getting weepy at the opening lines (“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 old smile” and I never thought I’d identify with a line about parents having to take a child back to the doctor the next day because of jaundice but I do now, and goddamn if he doesn’t nail that very specific feeling of terror) but it really proves that Oberst is at his best when he isn’t trying too hard. The song just fees so easy, and the thing just feels like it wrote itself.

Simplicity is what Upside Down Mountain strives for because it’s an album about settling down. It’s an easy record to a fault, but even though a good handful of the songs are missing the excellent songwriting I know Oberst to be capable of, I’ve been listening to the album pretty regularly for a week straight. The more I listen, the more I think that maybe the real misstep is the almost hour-long running time that feels about three songs too long. That and the best songs feel buried at the back of the record (the lively “Governor’s Ball” injects new life into the record and carries you through the home stretch and “Desert Island Questionnaire” is as intense as anything off the first Bright Eyes records). And even though the melodies feel a little under cooked on about half the songs, and even though the rhymes feel a little too easy for a master wordsmith, Oberst still finds a way to play puppeteer with my heartstrings.

"Time Forgot"

"You Are Your Mother's Child"

"Governor's Ball"

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