Album Reviews

Conor Oberst – Upside Down Mountain – Album Review


‘There is no dignity in love, trade every scrap to get some absolution’ – Lonely at the Top

Conor Oberst returns with an album under his own name and without the Mystic Valley Band, who have recorded with him for the last six years. The album features a number of songs that are largely guitar based, even if the sound is expanded through use of instruments such as clarinet, flutes and trombones among others, these tend to be low in the mix. The majority of songs are built around his own wavering reed like voice and the guitar. As Oberst said himself:

“It’s more intimate or personal, if you will. Even if all my songs come from the same place, you make different aesthetic decisions along the way. For me, language is a huge part of why I make music. I’m not the greatest guitar player or piano player—I’m not the greatest singer, either—but I feel if I can come up with melodies I like that are fused with poetry I’m proud of, then that’s what I bring to the table. That’s why I’m able to do this”

The strongest part of the album are the lyrics, and some can really capture you. He has an interesting turn of phrase and an ability to sculpt some bitter sweet love songs that sizzle on the pan. He is a fascinating character, and for his staying power and his steadfast belief in what he does. It is very hard to believe he is still only 34.

‘I can’t live outside the moment, and it keeps leaving me behind’ – Night at Lake Unknown

Conor Oberst is a man of many names, and many albums! Recording as Bright Eyes he has 9 studio albums and under his own name, this is his 6th recording, even if you don’t count the cassettes he made as a young man. He also has various recordings with Desaparecidos, Monsters of Folk and a number of other bands. Let’s just say, this is a man that has spent a lot of time in the studio. That is partly the reason this album is slightly disappointing. At this stage of his career, you’d expect him to be taking more chances. He should be recording an album with a mariachi band or exploring the inner workings of the Tuba. There were signs of him developing his sound, with Digital Ash in a Digital Urn (2005) which started to explore an electronic sound. While the album in itself wasn’t that successful, at least  it was different from what went before. This album just feels safe, and as an artist, that’s a dangerous place to be.

The album does have its moments, ‘Night at Lake Unknown’ has a faint delicacy that is certainly Oberst at his best. The ‘Governor’s Ball’ is a slow building song that grows into something quite epic and dynamic. The backing singers and brass section add fun to the experience. If you are new to him as an artist, it would be a much more enjoyable experience and in truth it is my own jaded ears that are the problem. I’ve simply heard it before and wanted something new.

“Time Forgot” – 4:34
“Zigzagging Toward the Light” – 4:03
“Hundreds of Ways” – 4:28
“Artifact #1” – 4:23
“Lonely at the Top” – 3:45
“Enola Gay” – 2:22
“Double Life” – 3:56
“Kick” – 3:39
“Night at Lake Unknown” – 4:15
“You Are Your Mother’s Child” – 3:49
“Governor’s Ball” – 4:18
“Desert Island Questionnaire” – 5:41
“Common Knowledge” – 4:59

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