“Upside Down Mountain” Oberst’s most intimate album to date

Conor Oberst blends craftsmanship and passion in “Upside Down Mountain.”



Tyler Davis, Writer

Conor Oberst could never be criticised for holding back emotion. In every one of his albums with his other bands Bright Eyes, The Mystic Valley Band and Desaparecidos, each word he writes drips with angst, loss, longing, or sadness. Oberst weaves his songs with his very soul. This has not changed with his latest offering, the second album released under his own name, “Upside Down Mountain.”

In the turmoil of the 1960’s, the folk songs of Bob Dylan matched the turbulent time and served as the decade’s soundtrack. The same can be said for Oberst in the current era. His songs are often dark, cynical and angry. They tell stories of damaged relationships and family struggles, and, on this release, hope.

From the first track “Time Forgot” to “Artifact #1,” Oberst pens some of his most personal and intimate songs since his eponymous solo album in 2008. Oberst builds beautiful narratives that draw listeners into his world and into his mind. Visual lyrics and careful word choice help to paint pictures of the stories he tells.

Even the folk-rock tracks on this album hit a contemplative chord. “Zigzagging Toward The Light” sounds like an abandoned Neil Young track. He clusters words together into incendiary swirls of emotion.

In “I Am My Mother’s Child,” Oberst paints a picture of his childhood and the relationship he has with his mother. “Halloween costume, looking real cute/With your pillowcase full, in your astronaut suit//But your cousin the cowboy is eying your loot/Better watch your Snickers bar.” Oberst manages to be nostalgic without feeling gimmicky. It’s as if he’s taken his family home videos and compiled them into a song.

Oberst ends the album with “Common Knowledge,” a masterpiece reminiscent of songs like “Poison Oak” and “Lua” on Bright Eyes breakout album “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning.” The song feels like a collection of letters, written but never sent, left in a dusty desk drawer.

In some ways, it seemed for a while that Oberst had left. He released music with Bright Eyes and The Mystic Valley Band, but the most recent releases from those outfits lacked the intense intimacy of his previous work. However, “Upside Down Mountain” makes it apparent that Oberst is maturing very quickly. This collection of songs reflects every strong moment of his previous efforts and there just is not a weak spot to be found.

Oberst has been writing songs and releasing albums since age 13 and like any good songwriter he makes observations about the world around him. Many of his songs are made up of simply that — observation. Oberst does not try to innovate the singer-songwriter model, instead he focuses on craftsmanship and passion. The marriage of these two things is precisely what make his music so beautifully potent and affecting. There is something instantly relatable about his shaky vocals. Perhaps because there is not a single one of us who has not felt that same shakiness in our own heartbreak, loss, love or joy. 

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