Conor Oberst is 34?!
No part of that makes sense, and I’m not even sure why. Given that his first major album (as Bright Eyes) came out the same year as Michael Jordan’s last championship, you’d certainly be forgiven for assuming he’s old enough to run for president. On the other hand, 34—with all the marriages and beer bellies and flecks of gray hair it portends—feels shockingly ancient for the wunderkind troubadour whose preposterous talent seemed even more absurd coming from his unfairly boyish face. Conor feels perpetually 22 as far as I’m concerned, frozen in time as the quivering, precocious maestro of Lifted…, like the movie star whose youthful attractiveness remains the audience’s picture for eternity.
His work with Bright Eyes revolutionized confessional songwriting for the narcissistic, hyper-emotional, and lonely millennial generation, thanks to his unforgettable voice and lyrics that felt like they had to have been plagiarized from someone older, wiser, more wounded. But after peaking, commercially at least, with 2005’s I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, he lost his way.
The Bright Eyes collective cruised to the finish line with a couple of passable albums released in between other side projects Conor tried on. For most of the last decade, he seemed too bored to conjure up those same peerless turns of phrase and unconventionally affecting melodies. In fact, he was on the verge of committing the ultimate rock sin: not burning out, but gently fading away.
But you don’t write “If Winter Ends” at 18 if you’re a fluke, and that’s the reassurance provided by Oberst’s latest release, Upside Down Mountain. This is his first essential recording in many years, the only one since that can stand up with Bright Eyes’ Mount Rushmore (for those curious: Letting Off the Happiness, Fevers and Mirrors, Lifted…, and I’m Wide Awake).
Interestingly, however, Upside Down Mountain bears many of the same hallmarks of newer Oberst projects. It lacks the melodrama of the feverish, thrilling early Bright Eyes works, when it sounded like the arrangements came together on the fly and his voice was going to burst on every song. The tempos have slowed now, he’s flattened out the vocal harmonies, and his metaphors veer more straightforward. And as Allmusic noted, Mountain finds Oberst “adding various sweeteners from strings and layered backing vocals to concentrated, crunching guitars, bright bursts of horns, and light tropical rhythms.”
Conor is, in fact, married, and his maturation, combined with the smoothed-out edges of his work, offers a new challenge—contentedness can be death for a songwriter. And while he still probes his darkest fears and belabors his biggest inadequacies, he tinges these conflicts with hints of acceptance. Where his albums used to project intimidation—‘Can you handle this?’ they seemed to ask—Mountain is calm and inviting. ‘Come on in,’ he’s suggesting, ‘We’ll get through this stuff together.’
As usual, Oberst’s jauntier songs (like ‘Hundreds of Ways’ or ‘Kick’) are the least interesting ones; they always feel like mere placeholders, as though he’s just killing time and buying some goodwill before returning to his more reflective, dramatic landmarks. He sounds like the Conor of old on opener ‘Time Forgot’ and the sparse, haunting “Night at Lake Unknown,” where he explains, “When I lost myself I lost you by extension / I don’t know who would stand to gain / These silly dreams aren’t worth a mention / But they keep collecting in my brain.”
“When I lost myself I lost you by extension / I don’t know who would stand to gain / These silly dreams aren’t worth a mention / But they keep collecting in my brain.”
Because the lyrics and songwriting have reverted back to Bright Eyes levels, Conor can add as many sweeteners to the music as he wants. Elsewhere, ‘Double Life” tackles the fear of adulthood and transition head on, and it reveals how his simplest lyrics are sometimes his best: “No longer worried about getting bored / Just trying to clear my mind.” But the album’s masterstroke is penultimate track “Desert Island Questionnaire,” a eulogy for our entire lonely and disenchanted culture.
Helped by the album’s best rolling melody and prettiest backing vocals, Oberst taps into hypothetical situations, familiar social recollections, and startling phrases to encapsulate living in today’s age. “Everyone’s asleep in this burning building,” he cries in the exhilarating climax, “And I can’t wake them up in time / You go on ahead I’ll be right behind you / We’re headed to the finish line.”
It’s the sort of gem that, frankly, I wasn’t sure he had in him anymore. That said, Mountain as a whole isn’t quite its equal; in addition to the inevitably reduced intensity, there’s the occasional strained line (“Freedom’s the opposite of love,” etc.) and tune that doesn’t fit in with the others.
But it feels so good to have Oberst back, prompting questions that you wish you didn’t have to consider, making you attack your demons from an unpredictable point of view. He overthinks and overwrites, but that remains endlessly preferable to the opposite, especially when it’s backed by this level of eloquence.
And the album provides hints that he might, someday, learn to accept his lot in life. “Night at Lake Unknown” and “Artifact #1” are two of the best (only?) pure love songs he’s ever written, and when he sings, “I keep looking back for artifacts / To prove that you were here,” you almost think he’s turned a corner. Maybe you can suppress the deepest and most disturbing thoughts in your psyche if you have someone you care about…right?
To be honest, this sort of optimism has, in my view, always been embedded in his songs. As defeated and macabre as he could sound, it always felt that he was more curious than fatalistic. Maybe it can be empowering and invigorating to have the capacity to feel things so deeply, regardless of the direction your emotional arrow points. Oberst’s next, substantial challenge might be making happiness sound just as remarkably life-affirming as sadness.