Conor Oberst has a brilliant way of evoking youth, only without the pimples and living with your parents. That’s not to say that Oberst’s music is youthful in the hyper-conscious, socially aware, status-concerned way. It’s the vivacious way in which his most intimate thoughts reach out, shoot you a text, and invite you to coffee and a walk.
Being young does not by any means signify that he is elementary or immature, and in fact, his long and successful career has proved his musical genius over and over again. “Youth” just happens to be the word associated with Oberst’s courageous refusal to hide nothing. And three solo albums and numerous Bright Eyes albums later, Oberst has stayed true to this. Oberst holds an X-ray screen up to his mind and stares vehemently out at the world with the message that “life goes on” in his newest album, Upside Down Mountain.
Even though his dedication to sincerity has stayed constant, Oberst’s outlook on life seems to have changed on the journey from his self-titled album in 2008 to now. While the old Oberst seems filled with a desire to be alone and on the road, the current Oberst feels more at peace with the waves of life. In “Night at Lake Unknown” of his new album, we are riding with him as his “bed it turns into a raft” and he “see[s] it all for what it is.” We’re not necessarily going to a specific destination, and his life is not more perfect, but he’s just less inclined to complain about what he can’t change.
There are several things that make Oberst a unique musician: his infinitely stoic eyes, his rattling boyish voice, and his tendency to approach the theme of love at arm’s length. There’s no denying that love is a strong emotion, but Oberst is hesitant to rely too heavily on love. His music is deeper than that—his lyrics are never just rapid heartbeats and tear-soaked pillows. He talks about loved ones but in conjunction with larger philosophies and thoughts. And he tells these stories through eloquent lyricism, as in “Artifact #1.” At times a bit emotional, at times a bit philosophical, but always genuine, he says, “you said we should live in the moment / Then I’d miss you all the time.”
If Oberst has his strengths, he has his weaknesses as well, one of which is his tendency to preach life lessons. While some songs are a product of nostalgia knitted into a careful story, there are others that feel like a Disney movie with a moral at the end. In “Hundreds of Ways” Papa Oberst advises, “There are hundreds of ways / To get through the days … Now you just find one.” And while the song as a whole advocates optimism amidst tragedies, the chorus becomes less personal and more “moral of the story.”
In songs like “Desert Island Questionnaire,” however, Oberst really hits his stride. Though darker than most of the record and certainly loaded with heavy questions, the lyrics are honest and not blatantly moralistic. He nudges you awake rather than setting off the alarm, with lyrics like, “No one’s gonna cry at this John Doe funeral / Not a lot to say didn’t even have a name / Light a candle just in case he was someone’s friend…”
Upside Down Mountain is not only lyrically enticing, but it is also well developed musically. Each track is infused with its own style while staying consistent to the general texture of the album. Some songs like “You Are Your Mother’s Child” stick more strictly to the folk genre, emphasizing a detailed account of a child’s growth in the lyrics. Other songs such as “Kick” and “Enola Gay” are colored with a tinge of ’90s rock and leave a lingering scent of Hawaiian-themed beach party. “Governor’s Ball” mashes up a garage band with a church chorus and horns, and it somehow manages to work. An unexpected combination. But then again, he’s spent over 21 years of his life immersed in music.
Written by Juhee Lee