Conor Oberst Upside Down Mountain on 2LP + CD
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.”
Oberst began to develop the songs that would comprise Upside Down Mountain while he was still figuring out where and how he was going to formally embark on the project. What started as exploratory demos with producer-musician Jonathan Wilson at his Fivestar Studios in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, in a home Wilson rents from Oberst, became the first de facto album sessions. Oberst found a simpatico collaborator in Wilson. Like Oberst, he’s a formidable record-maker whose own material slyly slips past folk-rock convention to foray into jazz, psychedelic rock, and symphonic pop.
Oberst notes: “Jonathan is one of those special people who communicates through music so effortlessly and plays every instrument so well. He has his own vision but we are very similar because we’re both laid back in a way. There’s not a lot of fuss over every little sound. All that is secondary to getting an emotional response to the music, getting the overall feel right. We work on a song until we’re really stoked about it, but the process doesn’t have to feel stressful.”
Returning to his native Omaha, NE, Oberst kept rolling with the help of frequent collaborator, engineer, and friend Andy LeMaster at his own ARC Studios. Even more tracking followed in Omaha last November and December. Then Oberst and Wilson moved south to Blackbird Studio in Nashville. “We went to mix but we ended up re-tracking things because they had these nice microphones and outboard gear that we thought we should take advantage of. So those were the three spots we recorded in, stretched out over a year. Jonathan was a huge part of it, and Andy helped a lot and the engineer Bryce Gonzales was a big part of it too.”
Like several narrative threads that re-emerge throughout the album - about longing or leaving, about a better life somewhere past the spotlight - particular musical ideas repeat in an almost dream-like fashion, like memories floating back into focus. Oberst says, “I like that about the album, the way these elements appear. They help tie it together.”
Conor Oberst Upside Down Mountain Track Listing:
1. Time Forgot
2. Zigzagging Toward the Light
3. Hundreds of Ways
4. Artifact #1
5. Lonely at the Top
6. Enola Gay
1. Double Life
3. Night at Lake Unknown
4. You Are Your Mother's Child
5. Governor's Ball
6. Desert Island Questionnaire
7. Common Knowledge