Over the past 20 years we’ve watched Conor Oberst grow up from a boy wise beyond his years at the outset of Commander Venus, to a man finally coming into his own with his first solo record in 2008. It’s been a winding road Oberst has been traveling, from punk and emo to psychedelic folk. I’ve been along for the ride since 2002, when I heard Lifted for the first time, and I’ve enjoyed every minute I’ve spent with his music.
One thing I’ve never really understood was the desire to make “solo” records instead of sticking with Bright Eyes. They aren’t much different sonically from each other, and they often feature a lot of the same musicians. I guess it’s important to Conor to have an outlet for songs he doesn’t feel fit under the Bright Eyes moniker, but essentially I consider them all Bright Eyes records (with the exception of Outer South, which makes sense as Conor Oberst And The Mystic Valley Band due to its Traveling Wilbury’s style).
On the new record, Upside Down Mountain, Oberst continues his musical evolution. I think it kicked off with the double release of Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and has continued on every album since. The music has been more compelling, matching his grasp of lyricism to make truly great songs.
I saw someone make a reference to Upside Down Mountain last week while NPR was streaming the album, and they said that they really liked the direction the music was taking, and I wanted to say “Did you not hear Cassadaga? This isn’t really a new thing-he’s been on this for a while now. Like, The People’s Key had some pretty out there production.” But I didn’t. As long as people are listening and enjoying I can’t really complain too much.
The album doesn’t waste much time getting into familiar territory for long-time Oberst fans. On the first track, “Time Forgot,” the lyrics aren’t too far off from something Conor may have written a decade ago: “They say everyone has a choice to make, to be loved or to be free. I told you once I felt invisible, and I’m sure by now you see. What I meant is that I’m not all there, until I finally leave.” The difference between a line like that on this album versus Letting Off The Happiness is that here it’s backed up by an ethereal guitar that drifts in and out, creating a more complete environment of sound.
It’s hard not to love that lead single “Hundreds Of Ways.” It is a bit too Paul Simon-y for me to keep it on repeat, but hearing it on WXRT every day gives a nice respite from all the horrible music out there on the radio. I don’t think a band like The National or Arcade Fire would be getting played with lyrics like “Sometimes I get mistaken for this actor, I guess I kinda see it from the side. Maybe no one really seems to be the person that they need to be. I hope that I’m forgotten when I die.”
Having seen a few different iterations of Conor’s live show over the years, I do think it’s better today than it was the first time I saw him. Most recently I saw him in Santa Monica where he headlined the Way Over Yonder Fest with The Felice Brothers as his backing band and First Aid Kit joined the band for a couple songs. In the grand scheme of his music, I think this is the kind of gig he’s been working toward-to play with great bands every night so the focus isn’t solely on him.
That trend will continue as he heads out with Dawes for a tour where they will open for Conor and then play as his band. If their take on “Easy/Lucky/Free” is any indication, those with tickets are in for a treat.
I know I’ve skimmed over a lot of Upside Down Mountain. That’s mainly because you’ve probably already heard it for yourself and (hopefully) made up your own mind about it. For as much as he’s changed over the years, Conor is still the same guy. The basics of what you’ll hear on this album aren’t any different from what you’ll hear on Fevers & Mirrors, he’s just found accompanying music that is equally as brutal and beautiful as his words.