At no point in his ongoing journey from Omaha to enlightenment has Conor Oberst professed to have all the answers. Each of his albums—and he’s released a ton, mostly under the Bright Eyes banner—is about struggling to understand God, love, ghosts, politics, outer space, fame, and growing up, and the best he’s come up with so far is a strategy. If Oberst can just throw enough words at life’s big mysteries, he might hit some hidden bull’s-eye and have a revelation.
On Upside Down Mountain, Oberst more or less sticks to the mission, though this happily married 34-year-old isn’t quite the restless questioner he was in his youth, when he got hit with that “voice of a generation” thing. On opener “Time Forgot,” he longs to sit quietly by a riverbank and let his beard grow, while “Desert Island Questionnaire” finds him bugging buddies with hypotheticals about disappearing from the world. “Hundreds Of Ways” is about resigning oneself to the unfairness of life. “There are hundreds of ways to get through the day,” he tells a friend or lover. “Just find one.”
Perhaps taking his own advice, Oberst dresses up his usual strum-heavy Americana with a few novel touches. “Time Forgot” features thundering drum fills right out of Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” and the vaguely African guitars on the album’s first three songs suggest he and multi-instrumentalist producer Jonathan Wilson have been digging on Graceland, or maybe even some Men At Work.
Regardless of where they came from, the bright, springy tones work well, as do the horns and old-time piano on “Governor’s Ball,” a trippy tale of druggy adventures at an outdoor festival. Oberst misfires, however, with the cheesy wah-wah slide guitar on “Double Life,” a sweet rumination on marriage that would have worked much better as a simple acoustic number.
If Oberst is, indeed, learning to pull back, it’s a work in progress. Most of these cryptic ramblers could lose a verse or two and still make pretty much the same amount of sense. He’s most affecting on “You Are Your Mother’s Child,” a straightforward graduation pep talk from a father to his son. Oberst is still plenty confused, so even when in character he can’t really dole out advice, but he’s at a place in his life where he can at least offer a blessing: “Now that you’re grown, may you never feel this alone.”