Singer-songwriter Conor Oberst’s debut album for Nonesuch Records, Upside Down Mountain, is, as its
title implies, a study in contrasts, a glance up to the heavens and a glimpse into the abyss. “There’s a certain solitude to this record,” Oberst admits, and themes of loneliness, dislocation, and regret repeatedly surface. Yet its making was far from solitary, as Oberst gathered friends old and new for the recording, including producer Jonathan Wilson, engineer Andy LeMaster, bassist Macey Taylor, multi-instrumentalist Blake Mills, and the Swedish sibling folk-rock vocal duo First Aid Kit. On hushed ballads like “Double Life” and “Artifact #1,” the instrumentation is often stripped down to voices, guitar, and ghostly keyboard; those songs are juxtaposed with tracks like “Governor’s Ball,” which sports practically buoyant horn charts, and “Kick,” which is exuberant rock and roll. A squall of electric guitar at the end of “Zigzagging Toward the Light” segues into a Johnny Cash shuffle on “Hundreds of Ways.” The overall warmth of the sound tempers the starkness of the stories being told and Oberst renders his carefully detailed lyrics with an easy intimacy, the still youthful quaver in his voice poignantly underscoring the rueful, decidedly mature words.
Upside Down Mountain also, says Oberst, stands in deliberate contrast to the harder-edged, hypnotically electronic material on 2011’s The People’s Key, his previous album with Bright Eyes, or the thrashing social commentary of side-project Desaparecidos: “I’m always reacting to what I did most recently. The songs I had been working on before this, for the last Bright Eyes record, they were personal to me and had come from elements of my life, but I wanted them to be bigger, cryptic, coded, to find words I hadn’t found in songs before. And working on the Desaparecidos stuff, it’s such a specific project and demands a more topical approach. It’s made with that purpose in mind.”
“Maybe this is a return to an earlier way I wrote songs,” he continues. “It’s more intimate or personal, if you will. Even it all my songs come from the same place, you make different aesthetic decisions along the way. For me, language is a huge part of why I make music. I’m not the greatest guitar player or piano player—I’m not the greatest singer, either—but I feel if I can come up with melodies I like that are fused with poetry I’m proud of, then that’s what I bring to the table. That’s why I’m able to do this.”