opinion byMICHAEL WOJTAS
In the classic singer-songwriter’s trinity of guitar, voice and words, there’s plenty of room for the artful disguising of one’s shortcomings. Consider the world-class misery of Leonard Cohen, who kept his melodies hypnotically simple and his sing-speak delivery simpler yet, allowing his peerlessly literate lyrics the spotlight they deserved. Or, for a contemporary example, look at Kurt Vile. He’s even less of a singer, and works from a plainspoken (yet poignant and funny) personal dictionary, but his everyman persona only brings his virtuosic acoustic techniques into sharper relief. And who amongst us hasn’t learned to forgive—or even cherish—Bob Dylan’s deliberately idiosyncratic inflections?
Cohen, Vile and Dylan possess at least one common attribute, and it’s a quality Conor Oberst seems to lack: extreme self-awareness. His quivery, limited vocal range has always been polarizing, always an acquired taste. He’s also never seemed interested in developing as a guitarist, his rudimentary folkie strumming often just the vehicle used to propel his words. And when Oberst’s words fail him, as they do regularly throughout Upside Down Mountain, he gets in trouble. He continues to confuse his reach and grasp, an imperfection that, in Bright Eyes’ best moments, helped him successfully portray the blisters of coming-of-age confusion. Here, as he seemingly aims for something like hard-won, grizzled wisdom, he often trips over his own lyrical ambition.
Upside Down Mountain is his first official solo release in five years, though it largely trades in the same amicable, Laurel Canyon-influenced sound as his Mystic Valley Band’s output. Musically, an Oberst record has never sounded quite so studied. Producer Jonathan Wilson, a noted revivalist of ‘70s folk rock tropes, adroitly conjures the ghosts of George Harrison’s majestic slide guitar and the E Street Band’s elated horn section. Backing vocals from the Summer Twins are almost certainly meant to evoke comparisons to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris duets. Yet the very distance between the album’s mellow, casually lovely sonic maturity and Oberst’s thematic arrested development results in an eerie, unintended detachment.
Couplets like “When I lost myself/I lost you by extension,” which sound more self-pitying than an apologetic or remorseful, suggest that Oberst may have plenty in common with the “sociopath on a bus” he lazily, pointlessly sketches in “Hundreds of Ways.” Meanwhile “I don’t know if I’m delusional/Or I just think I am” falls well shy of the sort of Dylan-esque riddle Oberst is probably aiming for, and evidences that he may benefit from enrolling in an Intro to Philosophy class at the nearest community college. And who else could make the mantra “I hope I am forgotten when I die” reek so badly of thinly veiled narcissism? Elsewhere, however, the slowly dawning awareness of this manchild-like inability to cope with everyday pains makes for a surprisingly compelling muse.
“You Are Your Mother’s Child,” is sung from a wayward father’s point of view, a strangely effective perspective for the childless Oberst to adopt. A clear highlight here, it offers the same old gradual tempo and dirt-simple chord changes peddled by the shaky-voiced troubadour since his first teenaged self-recordings surfaced. But when our narrator confesses, “Although he’s a bastard, make your papa proud/You’re a fine young man and I have no doubt/That you’re going to do this better,” it feels like real empathy tinged by regret, even if the object of this advice is imagined. The song can’t salvage Upside Down Mountain. Still, it’s enough to suggest that while Oberst may be every bit the egocentric bastard he describes, he’s still capable of saying something meaningful—especially when he can see beyond the darkness of his own shadow. C-