Ever since Conor Oberst captured mainstream attention in 2005 with the acoustic glory of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, he slowly began to shift away from the tendencies that made him such a divisive songwriter in his early career. Early is perhaps an understatement; Oberst released his debut work as Bright Eyes at the age of just 17, and the resulting recordings all the way from A Collection Of Songs... in 1998 to Lifted in 2002 marked a series of ear splitting emotional wreckage that won serious critical acclaim and reproach for its searing teenage angst. But as the Nebraska native matured, so too did the music, as Cassadaga and The People's Key showcased a much more subdued poet, one who dealt more in spiritual and political topics than the naked, soul baring extremities of the past. Much like earlier work, previous albums have found fans and detractors both with the media and Bright Eyes' legion of followers, making it seem very much the case that Conor Oberst can't escape controversy anywhere he goes.
So it's interesting then that the Omaha man's recently revived solo career has rolled on quietly and consistently since it was cautiously picked back up in 2008 in between Bright Eyes projects. Oberst's individual work seems to be a hideaway for the songwriter when he's feeling a little more down to earth and relaxed than usual, and so the folk style ramblings of his previous two solo efforts have reflected this desire for inner peace- they're content, solid pieces that'll provide you with the odd moment of serenity and warmth, but never the blistering intensity and unforgettable fire that Bright Eyes was always ready to light underneath you. So while it's safe to say Oberst has never quite delivered a solo record worthy of his most notorious stage name, there was hope for Upside Down Mountain from the start, due to quotes from the man himself suggesting a balance between both sides of the now 34 year old.
What we get in reality is a twin brother of 2008's self titled effort, a straight up folk crowd pleaser that offers plenty of warm acoustic vibes and intimate tones without ever really reaching for anything more interesting or meaningful. The album is mostly divided into two different types of song- the upbeat, pop friendly tunes that hint at a somewhat deeper subject matter without clearly defining their message ('Zigzagging Toward The Light', 'Hundreds Of Ways', 'Kick') and the down tempo, solemn country sounds of the other half, which is where the record finds most of its success.
'Double Time' and 'Lonely At The Top' are sorrow tinged ballads that populate the mid section, with 'Lonely' recalling 'Laura Laurent' from prime Bright Eyes in particular, albeit without quite the same depth of feeling and emotion- the title says all you need to know about an uncharacteristically shallow subject by Oberst's standards. 'Midnight At Lake Unknown' and 'Desert Island Questionnaire' are laid back acoustic meditations that sound quite nice but are mostly indistinguishable from the rest of the album, while 'Governors Ball' is a self explanatory lead single as the only track that actually uses the electric guitar. It's a strong moment, one that separates itself from the rest with nice instrumentation overall that includes a trumpet and saxophone to boot, but the real highlight of the album lies in 'You Are Your Mothers Child', the most engaging song on Upside Down by a mile, with its lullaby acoustic nature, gentle delivery and tender, beautiful lyrical ability, the kind of which should by all rights be expected of Oberst on every track considering his prowess. In truth, for all the pleasantries of the album, best translated by the warm welcoming and soft goodbyes of 'Time Forgot' and 'Common Knowledge' respectively, 'Mother's Child' is the only real moment on Upside Down that you really feel Oberst shine through in his usual hypnotic way, and that's a fairly damning verdict no matter what way you look at it.
There is nothing obviously wrong with Upside Down Mountain- as stated, it's filled with an intimate vibe and friendly melodies throughout, but that safeness and normality is the essence of the problem itself. There were always huge flaws on albums like Fevers & Mirrors and Lifted, from the broken, untrained voice and unrehearsed yelps to the voices in the background of makeshift, shoddy recording conditions, but that was what demanded our attention in the first place- it was a unique kind of heart and soul that couldn't be bought, and when Oberst grew up in the late noughties he still found a way to translate his spirit and swirling thoughts into a magical journey on a grander scale through Cassadaga and The People's Key.
But yet again the folk ramblings of Oberst haven't quite hit the right note and it's obvious after even one listen of Upside Down Mountain that they never will. The album is fine, but it feels wrong to settle for that considering the incredible talent behind it and what we all know him to be capable of on form. The unceremonious claim that The People's Key was to be a retirement album for Bright Eyes in 2012 was somewhat hard to take seriously- it seemed like that persona would always be found somewhere inside Oberst no matter what his ambitions were toward other long term projects, but now it's even harder to swallow considering the potential ramifications of a real closing of the door for Bright Eyes and that chapter of Conor Oberst's career. If this really is the way forward from now on for one of the most gifted songwriters of this generation, we'll only be left wondering what happened to that teenage boy locked inside his bedroom on a cold night in Nebraska rather than celebrating the realization of his talent and growth into the genius that befit his young age.
If you balk at the above judgement of Oberst's ability that's perfectly normal- anyone who has ever heard the man sing and play a guitar has had a different assessment of his talent over the past two decades, but it was always clear in spite of those vehemently differing opinions that he was totally unlike anyone else in music. Upside Down Mountain sounds like it could have been written by just about anyone right now- it's an album you'll hear fifty times this year, drowned in a sea of similar material, and at the end of it all, that's the worst thing you can say about an album by Conor Oberst.
Review by Andrew Lambert | THREE STARS