Today, Conor Oberst released a new solo album called Upside Down Mountain. Listen to it above.
This album marks the first time in 5 years that Oberst hasn't recorded an album with the Mystic Valley band, and his first solo album since 2008's Conor Oberst. Since I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, Oberst's music has gravitated much more towards folk and Americana, and away from his hyper-emotional, Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos early days. Upside Down Mountain solidifies Oberst's place as a folk musician instrumentally, but still shows that he can write very personal, intimate and confessional lyrics that make the listener feel his pain.
The opening track on the album, "Time Forgot," makes Oberst out as a traveler, longing to be away from everyone, with time to think and live his life. He doesn't want to destroy himself or die in a glorious way, as he sang on "I Don't Want To Die (In A Hospital)" on his previous solo album. He now just wants to die "just living," even if he still feels lonely, invisible or trapped in the memories of his past. The song has a ballad-like quality to it, prominently featuring acoustic guitar, and incorporating an electric guitar and some nice harmonies from Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit.
The next highlight song is "Hundreds of Ways." It was the first single released from the album. Here, Oberst talks about surviving and finding a way to get through the day. In the chorus he sings, "There are hundreds of ways to get through the day, you just have to find one." It seems very hopeful until you hear Oberst sing the line, "I hope I'm forgotten when I die," which brings a sense of despair to this song, and makes the listener think about whether any of those ways actually work. All that sadness is hidden by the bright, lively, rambling instrumentation. The song itself is a jaunt and it includes horns, more harmonies and a chorus with a singalong feel to it.
"Artifact #1," lyrically, is the closest song on this album to classic Bright Eyes. The acoustic guitar still gives it an I'm Wide Awake It's Morning feel, but the instrumentation is more Americana and country-based, with slide guitar gracing the background. Oberst shows a lot of emotion in this song, starting out calm, but as the middle of the song comes, his voice raises sharply and he nearly screams the line, "Life can't compete with memories, they never have to change." It creates a sense of desperation and you can tell he doesn't want to move on, even if the object of his affection is clearly long gone.
On the back half of album, the two standout tracks are actually the last ones. "Desert Island Questionnaire" starts with the narrator being overwhelmed over a simple question about what would happen if they were stranded on a desert island. The rest of the song goes on to chase questions about being bored with life but still being afraid to die. The song itself is bombastic, especially at the end when the horns and guitars blare and the group vocals come up like a choir.
The final song on the album, "Common Knowledge," is on the exact opposite spectrum musically. Instead of bringing in horns, slide guitars and electric guitars, the song focuses on vocals and acoustic guitar, with a dreamy, atmospheric keyboard in the background. This allows the lyrics to shine through, and they are pretty devastating. Oberst tells of a friend who is so self-destructive that the narrator ends up going through the same pain as his friend. The point is punctuated when he sings, "I've done this all for you, I've suffered long for you."
Upside Down Mountain shows why Oberst is known as a great lyricist, with plenty of powerful, heartbreaking, and personal lyrics that will make fans of his earlier work happy. Instrumentally, he has dedicated his sound to folk, and while sometimes it feels like a bit much, when the instrumentation is stripped down, he shines.