Conor Oberst, the wunderkind who began recording original songs long before he was old enough to drive, has made a career out of plumbing the darkest recesses of his psyche and channeling the often disturbing insights he finds into hyper-literate folk confessionalism. As a lyricist, he has a knack for spine-chilling turns of phrase that twist familiar sentiments like lust and boredom into surprising new shapes: “Layin’ in your bed, my dreams are sex and violence/I chase the rapist chasin’ after you,” he deadpans on “Lonely at the Top,” a track from his new album, Upside Down Mountain.
Given his penchant for the macabre, the album’s opening songs signal something like an emotional spring cleaning, a resolution to find balance and simplicity amid the psychological tumult that his lyrics have often channeled. On “Hundreds of Ways” and “Artifact #1,” however, that impulse leads to maudlin sentimentalism that make it seem like Oberst is taking the piss out of New Age-y philosophizing. While Upside Down Mountain is shot through with moments of open-hearted melancholia and wry social commentary, its sappier stretches suggest that Oberst’s sharp edges have begun to dull with age.
Recorded largely in Nashville, Upside Down Mountain is built around jangly acoustic guitars and shuffling upright basslines, yet producer Jonathan Wilson’s subtly placed synth reverberations lend the mix a stoned-out haziness similar to Father John Misty’s Fear Fun, which Wilson also produced. Album opener “Time Forgot” begins in minimalist fashion, Oberst’s warbling vocal backed by simple acoustic strumming as he sings about chasing sanity in a small town “where I don’t have to shave or be approachable.” Thanks to lofty harmonies by Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit and the addition of a reverberant second guitar part, the song builds to an ecstatic crescendo as Oberst rallies, “Here we go men it’s beautiful, get your trumpet get your drum/Keepin’ time in a second line it can make you feel so young.” The optimism that Oberst peddles here carries over into “Zigzagging Toward the Light,” a harder-rocking anthem that celebrates the fits and starts of the singer’s quest for spiritual fulfillment, and “Hundreds of Ways,” whose tiptoeing bassline and sashaying, Mexican-folk-inflected beat conjures a breeziness that feels refreshing until the song’s mawkish refrain, “There are hundreds of ways to get through the day/You just find one,” tips the whole affair toward cloying self-help rhetoric.
The album takes a sinister turn on “Governor’s Ball,” a narrative about a festival that goes awry when the governor being fêted mysteriously vanishes. Like Oberst’s most original compositions, the song contains flashes of surreal imagery while developing a line of social satire that remains just oblique enough to avoid preachiness. “Governor’s Ball” is at once a meticulously observed nightmare and a comment on how power corrupts elected leaders, the restrained verses erupting into manic horn breakdowns that lend the song an unsettling tone. It’s a testament to Oberst’s enduring versatility that Upside Down Mountain can accommodate the antic creepiness of “Governor’s Ball” as well as the transcendent uplift of “Time Forgot,” but the album’s moments of sentimentality make Oberst sound like just another chart-climbing purveyor of feel-good folky schlock.