Conor Oberst is best known as the frontman of Bright Eyes. He has also at various times been a member of Desaparecidos, Monsters Of Folk, Commander Venus, The Mystic Valley Band, and The Faint. He has appeared on tracks by Arab Strap, First Aid Kit and The Album Leaf, amongst many more. It is fair to say he is nothing if not prolific.
I first came across Conor, under his Bright Eyes guise, whilst at University via a lovable rogue in the room next door who switched me onto an awful lot of brilliant music. I picked up Fevers & Mirrors, a wonderfully dark, angst ridden, intellectually stimulating beast. Pitchfork named it one of the top 200 releases of the 2000s, despite the fact they initially slated it as falling “victim to mediocrity when held against the work of truly developed musicians” and describing the end of An Attempt To Tip The Scales as a “self-indulgent mass of pseudo-depth.” Whilst I can not stress enough how brilliant I think Fevers & Mirrors is, the divisive nature of the record was certainly there for all to see. The angst-ridden concept album of a twenty year old wunderkind is hardly likely to be mistake free, or anything but a tad self-indulgent. It was also very much of a time and place, I loved it when I too was in my late teens, and angst ridden, but I must admit I now find it a little too self-indulgent.
Better was Lifted, or, The Story Is In The Soil, Keep Your Ear To The Ground. Ok, so the title is a lot worse. The album itself however is arguably his master piece. Here he took the omnipresent angst and said, you know what I don’t care what the world thinks: “I do not read the reviews, no I am not singing this for you” as he said on Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (To Love And Be Loved) and it showed; this was Conor and the band, putting themselves out there. More than anything, what lifted it above his earlier work was the better instrumentation, better production, and much better melodies.
Indeed, his improvements as a musician, seem to have charted my own life. As he has matured so have I, when I needed teen angst he gave me teen angst, when I wanted a more mature country laden, early twenty’s sound he gave me I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, and at the same time made Digital Ash In The Digital Urn, which played on my more electronic-dancefloor leaning early twenty’s. When I fell in love with My Morning Jacket, he paired up with Yim Yames and gave me a Monsters of Folk record. Basically he has been there for me.
Lately however, maybe I don’t need him anymore, his solo albums have up to this point left me a little cold. When I saw him perform solo last year, it was brilliant but it felt backward gazing, it was like the multitude of bands replaying great albums from the past, yes it’s fun for an evening, but what are you doing next? So it is with a little trepidation I approach this his latest solo offering. I know you’re not “doing it for me” Conor, but how about it? How about the album that tells it like it is for a late twenty’s guy, slightly cynical yes, slightly skeptical sure, but still with open ears…come on Conor, just one more time, do it for me!
CONOR OBERST – UPSIDE DOWN MOUNTAIN
Conor is now thirty-four. Whilst that is actually fairly young for a folk musician, it is getting on the old side for a pop star. He has been making music for around twenty years. So it should be no surprise to anyone that his sound has matured, yet it still seems to disappoint some. Let’s face it, with every new Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes album the first point of discussion is whether it is a return to his earlier work. This, his third solo album since 2008, is probably the most Bright Eyes like album of them all. Indeed throughout the record there is a number of reference points that recall various moments of his bands previous work. Hundreds Of Ways recalls I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and sets it to a highly jaunty Paul Simon infused-Afro Beat; Desert Island Questionnaire is a distant cousin of Perfect Sonnet from the Every Day And Every Night EP, and if you can not hear a hint of both Lua & First Day Of My Life in You Are Your Mother’s Child, you probably haven’t heard many Bright Eyes records before.
There is plenty of things to like here for the Bright Eyes aficionado, but there is also probably a lot for people who have previously been put off. To say that Conor’s vocal, at the turn of century, was an acquired taste would be something of an understatement. Let’s be fair, for all the emotion his voice carried, hitting notes was not a strong point. It is no shock that between the age of twenty and thirty-four his voice has changed, it is now a powerful thing, capable not just of croaking his way through emotive ballads, but bouncing through Americana laced ballads like Time Forgot and carrying genuinely touching country laced numbers, namely Lonely At The Top.
This new found range is both a positive and a negative. Whilst it allows him to pull off a straight-forward rock number like Kick, it also leads him to think Zigzagging Towards The Light is a good idea. It sounds quite a lot like Eagle Eye Cherry. As well as being unspectacular music, it is full of a series of fairly weak metaphors for love. It is pleasant enough, but it is entirely throwaway. There is a lull in the middle of the album too, both Enola Gay and Double Life fail to grab your attention and even on repeat listens fails to hold it.
Elsewhere though are a series of excellent tracks, some of the best he has put to record for a very long time. Lyrically too he seems to be in a rich vein of form. Recurrent themes run throughout, and unlike some his previous solo outings, the record hangs together well as a cohesive body of work. A number of tracks find him rallying against celebrity culture, whilst with recent stories that makes a lot of sense, I would imagine a lot of the tracks were written in advance of them. On rocker Kick, we find him “Hiding in the hammock with the shade pulled down, wonderin’ if the story’s broke.” and brilliantly noting “Tragedy is profit once the word gets out.” Whilst Lonely At The Top, is fairly self explanatory from the title downwards.
There is more classic Oberst lyricism elsewhere however. Artefact #1 is a heartbroken ballad, played out over a Spanish Guitar. It is a fantastic track, with all the passion and sadness of a brilliantly danced salsa. We find him questioning “what would it take to gain acceptance to the ground behind your eyes?” It is classic Oberst, a puzzling series of strands of sadness, which must be unravelled to discover the true root of it all. He claims “I don’t want a second chance” whilst “looking back for artefacts, to prove that you were here”, he seems fairly unsure himself, but ultimately he sums it up with the stunning conclusion “life can’t compete with memories that never have to change.” Night At Lake Unknown is equally sad, Conor noting “when I lost myself I lost you by extension”, the guitar playing is stunning and haunting in equal measures, and there is even addition of a flute towards the end. The humble Flute currently rivalling the saxophone in a baffling battle for 2014’s most surprisingly popular instrument choice.
This whole album builds towards a brilliant closing salvo of tracks. You Are You Mother’s Child plays out a beautiful retelling of the birth of a child’s life, possibly his own child. It is set to a sleepy, dreamy acoustic guitar, that lilts so effortlessly; it is frankly wonderful. It will be too saccharine for some taste with its overly sentimental outlook on life, but like First Day Of Your Life, it has got genuine pop crossover potential; the teenagers who lap up Ed Sheeran could do a lot worse than giving this a spin.
Best of all is Desert Island Questionnaire, to the sound of muted guitar chords it too laments the trappings of fame, finding the protagonist “staring at your phone at another party. Spent a lot of clothes, got a lot of skin to show” and latterly proposing “a toast to the ennui of our times, to the selfishness of all of us” A fantastic and unmistakably Conor look at the world, in a brilliant track, that has all the emotive force of his earlier work, but containing a freshness that seems to contrast the lyric “so bored with my life, but I’m still afraid to die”. It bristling with life, even if he can’t see it.
Common Knowledge sees the album go “out with a bang just like Hemmingway” whilst that is a somewhat galling comparison, it is powerful imagery, he even notes the divisive nature of the albums closing line “some will say you’re brave, some will say you aint” Earlier in the track he notes that to “die young in the dark, that’s poetry, it was not to be, no it was not for me” his battles with his demons are well documented; his ability to comment on them, and share them with the world touch many and lift him above many similarly talented songwriters.
This album is far from perfect, but it is no disaster either. There are highs and lows, and perhaps like life itself it can not all be perfection. He is still a unique figure in music, crafting out his own path, a stunning voice for the broken hearted, who has still got plenty of life in him, and plenty of great songs him. Perhaps I don’t relate to him like I used to, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want him around, and it doesn’t mean he is not still making wonderful moments that will mean an awful lot to an awful lot of people.
Upside Down Mountain is out now on Nonesuch Records. Conor Oberst tours the UK in July