Album Review: Conor Oberst – “Upside Down Mountain”

140331-conor-oberst-upside-down-mountain-album-artThe following is a guest post from Scott Castro.

Over the course of the last 16 years, Conor Oberst’s songwriting has straddled the line between the accessible and the obscure. Much like the folk icons whose torch he’s carried since finding his footing on 2004’s “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning,” this singer-songwriter’s well of inspiration and illustrative diction seems to never run dry.

For every “First Day of My Life” or “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” riddled with relatable themes of everlasting contentment or passionless intimacy, there are two “A Scale, A Mirror, and Those Indifferent Clocks,” which flirt with concepts of the infinite and the absolute. Longtime fans have reveled at the fact that his talent can simultaneously garner critical praise while eluding commercial radar.

“Upside Down Mountain” teeters more toward the graspable while not losing sight of the depth of consciousness that has maintained his mystique. The result is an intimate folk-rock album that can appeal to those unfamiliar with his lengthy anthology while delivering a maturation of lyricism to satisfy the Oberst faithful.

Musically, the album doesn’t stray too far from the instrumentation and arrangements that defined 2007’s “Cassadaga.” However, this effort remains distinct from any of Oberst’s previous work. Producer Jonathan Wilson (Father John Misty, Dawes) drips his signature Lauren Canyon sound across the record’s 13 tracks and the sisters of Swedish folk outfit First Aid Kit intermix vocal harmonies throughout. Anyone who’s seen Conor perform in the past two years will most distinctly identify what Wilson’s production brings to the table when they hear the studio arrangement of “Kick,” which wanders from the minimalist guitar and vocals that formed the song’s foundations on tour.

Independent radio listeners have likely heard the album’s first single “Hundreds of Ways” float through their speakers a few times in the past several weeks, and while the track serves as an apt single, it ultimately provides a mere tease of the musical and lyrical fortitude that defines this record. The aforementioned “Kick” pens a fictional biography of Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy based on a nonfictional chance encounter with the granddaughter of the late RFK. “Artifact #1” is a song about love plagued by uncertainty and dislocation, the latter of which serves as a cornerstone theme of the record, further evidenced by the homesick expressions on “Zigzagging Toward the Light.” While “Desert Island Questionnaire” oozes with vintage Bright Eyes flare, symbolism, and sense of urgency, “Double Life” treads new ground for Oberst as he contemplates the implications of existence beyond the search for individual significance. “It ain’t simple, like before. These are different times…”

Ultimately, if you’ve found yourself a convert of the folk revival that’s permeated popular music over the better half of the past decade, then you owe it to yourself to give “Upside Down Mountain” a spin and discover (or re-discover) a talent that’s consistently lined the movement’s collection plate.

The album is out now on Nonesuch Records, and if you need an excuse to escape Richmond this weekend, he’ll be playing a two-night stand with Dawes at D.C’s 9:30 Club on Friday, May 23 and Saturday, May 24.

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