Upside Down Mountain, Conor Oberst’s second album under his own name, casts the songwriter toward a lofty class of peers, Paul Simon among them.
Most notably, “Hundreds of Ways,” in its muted guitar, cheery supplementary instrumentation, First Aid Kit’s lofty backing vocals and Oberst’s sharp lyrical observations, sounds nearly like a cut from Simon’s Graceland.
Arguably, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, Oberst’s 2005 release with Bright Eyes, remains his crowning achievement and in his sixth LP release since then, he shows signs of nearing that pinnacle of sharp, yet subtle, political commentary, compelling melody and hopefully wry observation again. However, the 13 tracks of Upside Down Mountain are absent the melancholy blend of personal disappointment and post-9/11 hopelessness.
Tracks like “Lonely at the Top” swerve closest to tracks like “We Are Nowhere and It’s Now” from I’m Wide Awake, and it doesn’t stand quite as tall or as uniquely as Mountain’s “Governor’s Ball” or “Kick.”
It’s on tracks like those, mostly on the album’s second half, that Oberst might finally begin to outpace the work of his early-to-mid-20s. His voice still possesses its unmistakable waver, and in that, the listener will always know that Upside Down Mountain and a few frighteningly depressive songs from a decade past are products of the same artist.
But otherwise, at its best, Oberst is confident and comfortable. After more than 20 years of writing songs, he’s successfully found a voice outside himself, managed to perhaps turn whatever anxiety or trouble that fuels him outward.