Conor Oberst’s “Upside Down Mountain” a Top Contender for 2014’s Best

24 Jun

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Bright Eyes. That’s been the music alter ego of Conor Oberst since he was in his mid-teens. I’m not sure where the Bright Eyes reference comes from. With song lyrics that often ask hard questions or focus on the darker side of life, it certainly doesn’t suggest that Oberst sees everything with stars in his eyes. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the intelligence that sparkles behind those irises.

While Oberst — whether as Bright Eyes or as a solo artist — creates compelling melodies that you can’t get out of your head, it is also essential that you listen closely to the lyrics of his songs. He’s a fabulous writer — a poet of extraordinary gifts. And no review of a work by Oberst would be complete without references to selected lyrics in addition to his melodies.

This is certainly the case with Oberst’s newest work as a solo artist, Upside Down Mountain. The 13-song set with 50 minutes of exquisite music is one of my favorites of 2014.

Some might categorize it as indie folk — but that would be too narrow of a definition. It’s rock, pop and folk fused together into songs that are immediately familiar and then become unforgettable. Oberst himself labels Upside Down Mountain as alternative. Whatever genre it is, you need to hear it.

It’s been hard for me to decide what songs to highlight in this review as I’ve listened to the album. The opener, “Time Forgot,” is an excellent starting point — with its stuttering, electronic rhythm, ringing guitar and simple melody. And right away, Oberst’s lyrics make an interesting claim. “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 right now you see.”

The second track, “Zigzagging Toward the Light,” is one of my favorites on the album. As Oberst contemplates the meaning of life’s journey toward whatever lies beyond, he sings, “I’m blessed with a heart that doesn’t stop/My mind’s a weathervane — spins around just like a top….I’m going to leave here ‘fore too long/Zigzagging toward the light, I’m off to sing my boundless song.”

The video for this track is also fascinating — especially because it features Oberst, who has traditionally scorned music videos, trying to get through an ordinary day while he is observed by an omniscient presence. Definitely worth watching.

The album’s third song (no, I’m not going to write about all 13 tracks — although it’s tempting!) is a fun, mid-tempo indie folk-rock tune with a bit of a Johnny Cash-style, echo-y country guitar. “ The song’s title, “Hundreds of Ways,” is a reference to the variety of methods we can us to get through the days…and we just have to find one. A little Van Morrison-type saxophone is a nice added touch musically.

In “Artifact #1,” Oberst has created an intimate love song. He muses, “I don’t want a second chance/To be an object of desire/If that means slipping through your hands/If I had tried to make you mine/You would have walked away/I can’t compete with memories/They never have to change.”

And so it continues throughout Upside Down Mountain. Other highlights include: “Night at Lake Unknown,” a soft, sweet ballad backed with Oberst’s wistful slide guitar; “Governor’s Ball,” a bigger sound with fuzz guitar that’s reminiscent of some of the best of Neil Young; and one of two thought-provoking closing numbers, “Desert Island Questionnaire.”

The song begins with, “Say that you were stranded on a desert island/What books you gonna bring; what friends would tag along?” Oberst challenges us to think more deeply about our lives with observations such as, “You don’t like this game and you take exception/Who wants all this trouble, even hypothetical?”

Later, he exposes his raw inner self by saying, “I’m so bored with my life, but I’m still afraid to die” and issues a warning, “Everyone’s asleep in this burning building/I can’t wake them up in time.”

There’s great musical variety to Upside Down Mountain’s songs. Unlike some artists today, no two tracks sound alike, although they all fit together as part of a creative whole. My recommendation is that you put Oberst’s album on repeat, sit back, relax, and allow the music and lyrics to wash over you — giving you lots to think about and a very fulfilling emotional experience.

 

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