Conor Oberst, a master of sad songs and a brilliantly philosophical lyricist, has just recently graced the world with his solo album, “Upside Down Mountain.” And if you have watched any YouTube videos lately, you’ve likely heard an ad for his album playing the song “Zigzagging Toward the Light,” a rather lively tune with somber words. This lead singer of the folk music band Bright Eyes is known for his wavering voice and his shockingly honest lyrics, but now he is giving himself a new edge with his solo tunes.
Generally, the Bright Eyes audience has enjoyed gloomy yet candid lyrics and often simplistic tunes. In Oberst’s new album, he still stays true to his usual sound, keeping a folky element and maintaining his signatory crackling voice. However, he incorporates a new sound that is reminiscent of those breezy and lazy songs from the early ‘70s, which makes the album curious to listen to. Where many of his Bright Eyes albums have few and simple instruments, Oberst’s solo album incorporates a more orchestral sound, using more than just simple guitar strings and instead blending many instruments together for a more polished product. He also has stepped out of the general slowness of sad guitar strums and slow-paced vocals and has instead embraced faster and more complicated melodies, making his new album much more versatile.
The general feel of the album is still unsurprisingly melancholy. However, it is less of an in-the-moment rawness, and more of a reflective thoughtfulness that dominates his work, giving it a more nostalgic feel. Rather than grieving over being in the middle of hard times, the gist of the album is about being reminiscent of those hard times and looking back at them as a changed person. It is a great album to play while in a thoughtful mood; it brings out some of Oberst’s great thought-provoking lines like, “They say everyone has a choice to make / To be loved or to be free.”
Most songs on the album flow in a dreamy, bright way. They have a somewhat hopeful sound to them; you’ll walk away from the album with a peculiar feeling that everything is alright. Where most of the songs, like “Time Forgot” and “Enola Gay” are still pretty slow-paced and even a little monotonous in melody, Oberst throws in some interestingly melodic songs like “Kick,” which is still folky and reminiscent of Bright Eyes, but more worthy of foot taps and head nods. One of the most popular songs on the album is “Hundreds of Ways,” one of Oberst’s more upbeat tunes which even includes a prominent trumpet melody. Overall, there are a good sprinkling of songs that stand out, but there are also a few that are more boring than thought-provoking.
If you’re a Bright Eyes fan, you will most likely be a fan of Oberst’s new album, since the soul of the album is extremely similar to that of the band. However, the Bright Eyes albums have proved to be more interesting and catchy than any of Oberst’s solo music on “Upside Down Mountain”; the more polished sound makes the songs seem less unique from each other and detracts from the usual Bright Eyes rawness. Not to say that this album is unenjoyable; it’s very well constructed and the songs are not only teeming with Oberst’s wittily genuine lyrics, but also have some intriguing new sounds. I am simply too in love with the simple, sad songs of Bright Eyes, perhaps.
So if you’re a Bright Eyes fan, be prepared for a bit of a renovated sound. Expect a few more instruments, a dash of ‘70s rock, a more polished (but still characteristically shaky) voice and some new insight from the mind of Oberst. But I definitely give Oberst props for this album, because it is genuinely good, and I encourage everyone to give it a chance; you might find that you like the new sound better than the old.
Rating: 4 stars