It’s wild to think that Bright Eyes’ last, and eighth album, 2011’s masterful The People’s Key, was released when frontman Conor Oberst was then just 31. While still considerably younger than many of his peers that blossomed at the same time in the mid-2000s, the prodigiously talented songwriter has been cranking out confessional songs riddled with internal angst and self-doubt since his teens. But with The People’s Key, Oberst finally embraced an extroverted rockstar persona (well, for him, anyway), and an outward-looking viewpoint, pondering big metaphysical ideas about compassion in a complicated world, and humanity’s place in the wider universe. A sonically captivating, emotionally moving record, it felt like a culmination, and honestly, a celebratory farewell.
Luckily it was not a true goodbye: Here we are, three years later, and Conor Oberst is back, albeit sans the Bright Eyes moniker, with his latest, Upside Down Mountain.
Now 34, Oberst is once again solo — and specifically without longtime Bright Eyes collaborators Mike Mogis and Nathaniel Wolcott — which means a return to the country-infused rockers of his previous records under his own namesake. The change is not unexpected. Oberst has frequently, restlessly shifted projects away from what came before, and while Upside Down Mountain doesn’t quite retreat to the raw intimacy of his earliest voice and guitar recordings, it does strip away the grandiose flourish.
If less experimental than before, Oberst and producer-musician Jonathan Wilson are at least trying to find some wiggle room amid back-to-basics songwriting. Together, they’ve crafted folk rock songs punctuated with slight Southwestern and Afropop instrumental touches: swoony George Harrison slide guitar (“Kick”) and pedal steel melodies (“Enola Gay”) mix with bouncy bass lines, exuberant horn lines and crisp West African guitar lines (“Hundreds Of Ways”). And the charming vocal harmonies provided by Johanna and Klara Söderberg of the Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit, give showstoppers like “Governor’s Ball” a stirring lilt.
Still, the real draw, as always, is Oberst’s signature calling-cards: the hyper-specific observations in his verbose wordplay, and his trembling vocal delivery. Upside Down Mountain ruminates on familiar themes: loneliness and the elusive nature of love in “Lonely At The Top;” parenthood with the lullaby “You Are Your Mother’s Child;” and trying to find inner peace in “Double Life”: “There’s a better life on the other side / it’s your double life on the other side / it’s your second life on the other side.”
And, seemingly more than ever, there’s a pervasive theme of aging and mortality throughout: “Though so far I have cheated death, I know someday I’ll get caught,” he sings on “Time Forgot”; and on “Zigzagging Toward The Light,” he states, “I’m going to leave here before too long.” And later, in “Hundreds Of Ways,” Oberst reflects on life’s choices and how he perceives himself versus how he may actually be, singing “Maybe no one really seems to be the person that they mean to be / I hope I am forgotten when I die.”
Upside Down Mountain may not have the same cosmic, existential pondering of the career-defining The People’s Key; the thematic scale has been downshifted, the stakes lowered and domesticated. And yet, even in this new phase, Oberst is as compelling a songwriter as ever, still capable of revealing deeply-felt truths — now with a greater sense of maturity.