The Bright Eyes man is back to his sincere, melancholy best on his latest album
When Conor Oberst was 19, he wrote and recorded the third Bright Eyes album, the melancholy and magnificent ‘Fevers And Mirrors’. As tortured and angst-ridden as it was, it possessed a lyrical, musical and thematic depth that was way beyond his years. Almost a decade and a half later, it remains his masterpiece. He’s come close, namely on Bright Eyes’ ‘Lifted…’ and ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’, as well as the acerbic politipunk of the Desaparecidos side-project.
At times, much of the rest of his vast discography has come off as pastiche – especially when indulging his passion for country music. Too often, it has just sounded disingenuous.
On this most recent solo effort, it seems the earnest Oberst of old has returned. These 13 songs slow-dance between folk, country and, well, sounding like Bright Eyes, but there is a cohesion and sincerity here that has been missing. Opener ‘Time Forgot’ could be a song from his distant past. It’s a trembling, nostalgic rumination on life and love with added hindsight – as if he’s putting an arm around his 19-year-old self and giving out advice.
Similarly, ‘Zigzagging Toward The Light’ – imagine Eagle-Eye Cherry’s ‘Save Tonight’ recast as a Paul Simon tune – flows with a naive emotional wonder but possesses a weary, heavy heart. There are tinges of country in the lilt of ‘Artifact #1’ and ‘Enola Gay’, as well as the sad slide guitar cadences of ‘Night At Lake Unknown’, but they only add to the air of melancholy.
A sense of vulnerability is present throughout the whole album, not least on the triptych that closes it out – the metallic shimmer of ‘Governor’s Ball’, the gentle resignation of ‘Desert Island Questionnaire’ and the jaded romanticism of ‘Common Knowledge’.
It all harks back to the word-in-your-ear confessionals of ‘Fevers And Mirrors’. Were it not for the whimsical, country-tropical jangle of ‘Hundreds Of Ways’, ‘Upside Down Mountain’ would very nearly be its equal.