Conor Oberst

Making Up with Conor Oberst

Megan Seling

By Megan Seling

on 05.20.14 in Features

Upside Down Mountain

Conor Oberst

In the interest of mental health, I had to break up with Bright Eyes years ago. There was a time when frontman Conor Oberst’s songs about crippling depression were reassuring, as I careened through life trying to get a handle on my own brain’s instability. But I eventually hit the point where continuing to listen to the band’s heavy-hearted catalog was just enabling me to stay miserable. I ‘d like to say I stuck with Oberst through the critically-acclaimed I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning/Digital Ash in a Digital Urn double release, but our split happened a year before that, in early 2004, after I spent the holiday season drowning in a combination of Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground and his poignant version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” I decided I needed to move on.

By the sound of Oberst’s new solo album, Upside Down Mountain, he’s let go of some things, too. On opening track “Time Forgot” he optimistically sings, over some bright strums of his guitar and a soft, bouncing bassline, “Polished my shoes/ I bought a brand new hat/ moved to a town that time forgot/ where I don’t have to shave or be approachable/ no, I can do just what I want.” But he’s not singing about becoming a hermit, as he would’ve in days past — he’s singing about finding comfort.

Oberst’s search to find, and accept, his place in the world is a common theme on Upside Down Mountain. Many of the songs (which were recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, and, as a result, possess a country vibe and plenty of slide guitar) have the kind of wisdom and calmness that come with surviving the storm, so it’s easy to assume that Oberst is addressing his younger self when he sings, in his familiar, wavering voice, “There are hundreds of ways to get through the days/ now you just find one.”

These might be the words he wished he heard (or, more importantly, believed) as he spent his teens and early 20s dedicating his craft to songs about suicide, loneliness and babies drowning in bathtubs. Frankly, I wish he had sung them to me then, too. But the album isn’t without darkness. “Desert Island Questionnaire” is a great morbid pop song with layered, marching instrumentation that almost makes a celebration out of life’s irony.

While it’s nice to hear that Oberst has lightened up, ultimately Upside Down Mountain is a pleasant letter from an old friend who’s writing to tell you that things are going pretty well. You’re glad it exists, and you’ll cherish that you both managed to get through your battles mostly unscathed, but the most interesting parts, and the connection, only happens when the darkness is acknowledged.