By Phil Brown, Contributor
To start off the weekly series, I’d like to take a look back at an album that was released earlier in the year: Conor Oberst’s “Upside Down Mountain.” Oberst was a bit of a pioneer when it comes to music in Omaha; he started something, or was a part of the start of something: a movement of sorts that still makes itself felt today.
It’s unfortunate, for us at least, that he has been somewhat absent for years. His relationship with the city seems to have subsided more or less amicably, as former lovers who have found they simply don’t seem to have a lot in common with each other anymore, but still find themselves in the same circle of friends, and are perhaps so familiar to each other that the relationship has continued platonically.
Oberst is still very much the poster boy of the Omaha music scene as the city’s most famous musical product, and he will still stop by now and then for a show or a benefit event.
Oberst’s rawest early work was so influenced by living in the town, and while he may not see that as a positive thing, it’s something that cannot be removed from his story; this town is a irrevocably a part of his burgeoning legend.
That legend continues to unfold with “Upside Down Mountain,” Oberst’s fifth solo studio album since his first cassette released in 1993, “Water.” This latest work is similar to his old stuff: he writes and performs with at least some sense of the hair-on-fire, raw urgent emotion of his younger days, which brought him to fame as a teen-emo idol.
The differences between those days and “Mountain” are twofold. First, on “Mountain,” Oberst is writing from a position of relative experience and wisdom, in contrast to the themes of youth that teenagers found so relatable in the late nineties.
Nearing the age of 35, Oberst is now an undisputed veteran of the music industry. He has worked with many bands, record labels and genres. His work has reached the age where music critics seem untowardly eager to shelve him indefinitely as a man past his time, and he was falsely accused of sexual assault in a highly-publicized, personally costly drawn-out series of events.
There is certainly a thread of world-weariness and resignation to be found in “Upside Down Mountain.” One of my favorite tracks on the album is “You Are Your Mother’s Child,” in which a father looks back on the life of his son.
The angst of his early works are replaced in this track by a powerful, bittersweet sense of nostalgia, although the frank, emotional lyricism is still evident.
“What I couldn’t teach you, soon you’ll realize / She’s the only thing that matters.”
Oberst’s voice in the track isn’t exactly regretful, he seems to have resigned himself to his own failures as a father, and the tragedy of lost love. He echoes the sentiment in “Artifact #1.”
“If I had tried to make you mine / You would have walked away / Life can’t compete with memories / They never have to change.”
At the same time, however, the overall tone of the album is buoyantly hopeful. Oberst finds “Hundreds of Ways” to “get through the day,” even in the face of the destruction of everything he loves.
Another way this album differs from the rest of Oberst’s work is in its production. Oberst returns to the Americana-type sound of Bright Eyes’ “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” but, in songs like “Kick” and “Zigzagging Toward The Light,” is more than ever willing to mix in foot-tapping pop elements.
In contrast to the reckless production employed on his early work, and more similar to Bright Eyes’ later work, “Upside Down Mountain” has been painstakingly crafted, the bars are tight, and every line seems to be perfectly fine-tuned. Oberst’s voice, while it’s not wholly lacking the distinctive warble, comes across much more directly.
“Mountain” relies less on contrast, and more on harmony. The result is an album that’s eminently listenable, music that flows easily through the ears but is still thoughtful, with just as deep of meaning.
If there was an album by Oberst that Omaha as a whole could get behind, it might be “Upside Down Mountain.” It’s unfortunate that it comes after he’s been away so long.