Skip to content

Conor Oberst Channels Don Henley on Delectably Inscrutable ‘Upside Down Mountain’

SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: May 20, 2014
Label: Nonesuch

It’s useless to use clichés like “return to form” for a talent as inconsistent and impervious to outside influence as Conor Oberst. His finest record is his simplest (2008’s Conor Oberst) and his most popular is his most self-involved (2002’s Lifted, or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground). Such is emo. Luckily the brat has plenty of country in him, which made for tuneful songs like “Make War” and “I Must Belong Somewhere,” in which he started viewing the world beyond whatever boy’s shoes his ex-girlfriend wore to school. His statements were verbose and prescriptive, so we also assumed they were Big, and this funny combo of simultaneously grandiose and oblique instructions for his cult was why he earned that New Dylan thing we bestowed on him long before he got to 34.

The People’s Key, from 2011, was supposedly the final Bright Eyes record, an underrated, nervous batch of inexplicable new-wave rockers framed by sermons from Oberst’s spacey, evangelistic friend Denny Brewer. You can tell an Oberst “solo” album from a Bright Eyes record because there are no seven-minute intros or spoken bits about pomegranates. But that doesn’t mean they’re any easier to piece together.

Upside Down Mountain comes trailing a lawsuit that finds Oberst fighting a sexual assault accusation to clear his name, a no-win situation that unfortunately colors the phrases that stick out most on this record: “I love these unsolved mysteries,” he sings on “Artifact #1,” and, if that was too vague, in “Lonely at the Top” he expounds, “I chased the rapist chasing after you.” Elsewhere, accusatory-sounding lyrics like “Friendship makes you paranoid” and “These people wanna live in the past” disrupt the easy-listening style of the music with queasy thoughts. Of course, his normal phrasing is just as discomfiting. Lines like “Someone told me that exact same thing once” or “You better watch your Snickers bar” will never be commonplace, no matter how much Oberst hams up his music for an AOR market that died with Don Henley’s career.

But it’s his gloriously cheesy new interest in ’70s AM rock that glues it all together, so call him the Eagles of Screamo. Especially enjoyable are the wah-wah waltz of “Double Life” and the parachuting Afro-blue fanfares of “Hundreds of Ways,” plus “Kick,” which stomps like the Knack when it’s not Western swing. “You Are Your Mother’s Child” sounds like Moe Tucker’s “Afterhours” bludgeoned with Blake Sennett’s “Ripcord.” Best of all, we get the Memphis blues horns and tickled ivories of “Governor’s Ball.” All of which render Oberst’s fragmented estrangement personable, even likable. So frills and all (but especially the frills), Upside Down Mountain is a curious, if occasionally disturbing pleasure to listen to. Just don’t expect answers when you turn it right side up.