Conor Oberst is synonymous with laying his raw feelings bare with Bright Eyes and charging at politics with a tongue as sharp as a knife with Desaparecidos. So what does Conor Oberst the solo artist stand for? His third record under his own name, Upside Down Mountain, is being released amidst a lot of wonder as to what it could sound like, especially as he worked on it in Nashville alongside legendary producer Jonathan Wilson. When speaking about the new record, Oberst said “I feel like I’ve been pretty invested in all the different projects and records I’ve made. I think to a lot of outside people it’s sort of splitting hairs, like – ‘Why does this guy need so many bands?!’ – but to me they all sort of make sense. When I get to do a record on my own, I guess I’m a little more free to call the shots, but then again I produced the record with this guy Jonathan Wilson, who is such a big part of it… he comes from a bit of a different musical background then I do, so I think that the record is sort of where our ideals intercept a little bit.” The first full length release from Conor since Bright Eyes’ swan song The People’s Key, Upside Down Mountain is here and we can’t wait to start climbing.
The record opens with ‘Time Forgot’, an easygoing country track with music ebbing and flowing easily around Conor’s easily recognisable vocals. The relaxing vibe of the track is a complete 180 to the following track ‘Zigzagging Towards the Light’, which picks up a solid beat and faster pace. Jonathan Wilson’s guitar addition easily elevates the track in a way that feels strange, but right.
‘Enola Gay’ could very easily pass as an early Bright Eyes track, with Conor’s trademark shaky, angst-ridden voice making an appearance. The name of the track is a reference to the name of the plane that dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, a very Oberst act, as seen in various Desaparecidos tracks. The track is also filled with simple piano, strings and percussion before being cut short before it even hits two and a half minutes right after the lyric “until you vanish like the rest outside”. The track is almost exciting in it’s structure, especially after a slower first few songs of the record, and it makes you want to listen over a few times just to make sure you take it all in and try and understand Conor’s ideas behind the track.
‘Kick’ could easily be described as the turning point of the sound of the record, the track being outright danceable! Conor has apologised for the content of the song, however, saying “This song is total projection. I imagined what this person’s life might be like based off a few minutes I spent with her in a crowded bar and some scattered tabloid journalism. It is almost certainly and completely inaccurate on every level but, hey, it’s a catchy tune.” The track, full of specific references, is almost definitely about Kathleen ‘Kick’ Kennedy, an actress and the eldest daughter of one of JFK’s nephews. This could seem a strange choice but the lyrics that repeat that “Kick, you know you’re still a kid” and descriptions of her projected life could be Conor talking to himself in the past, telling himself he’s still young and that everything will be OK, the projected life being his own.
‘You Are Your Mother’s Child’ is a highlight of the album, sung from the perspective of a father to his child. The song is filled with sentimentality and nostalgia, moreso than any other track on the record, to the point where although the lyrics come across a little darker than you may realise, you’ll already be far gone in your own childhood memories of road trips and happy families. However, there is a very timid sound to the track, with both the instruments and the vocals being soft and quiet to the point of getting dreamy, just adding to the aforementioned nostalgia.
While ‘Desert Island Questionnaire’ ponders life in death with crescendos and lyrics such as “pretend that you were stranded on a desert island, what would be the message that you’d spell out for the plane?”, ‘Common Knowledge’ closes the album out in an atmospheric haze, the synthesisers no doubt a takeaway from The People’s Key. The track stands out in all of Oberst’s extensive catalogue, an ending to the record, an ending of a life. Oberst said of this track: “This is the last song on the record. It ends with a suicide as most great things do. Everybody knows. Everybody cares. Everybody understands.” The song is just beautiful and one to listen to loudly in the dark, letting it take you on a tour of memories you’ve never had.
While Conor is clearly not one to shy away from embracing emotion in his music, Upside Down Mountain is an example of just how much he’s matured and is using that same emotion he feels in a whole new way in his art, with the number of ballads higher than expected and the little easter egg throwbacks to his musical career. Many media outlets have been focusing on him now being a married, major label artist compared to his earlier, independent days, but when asked about the new record, Conor said “It’s more intimate or personal, if you will.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.”