A lot of artists, after all, will have the album they say is the return to their roots, and often times it’s a wasted effort, but not for Oberst.
By Patrick Kabot
Upside Down Mountain is without a doubt a one-way trip into nostalgia, Oberst himself even stated that this album was meant to be a return to the sound that Bright Eyes defined a generation with. While it does absolutely exude qualities of the Bright Eyes years, it does so with a much more refined and fresh sound that displays just how much Oberst has continued to grow as a person as well as a musician.
Oberst has always been known to “set the stage” on his albums, and Upside Down Mountain is no exception. The first track “Time Forgot” paints the picture of a town, forgotten by time, that allows for a far more reserved life. Accompanied by beautiful female harmonies, the piece goes through several triumphant build-ups and fall-backs, which ultimately reach a climax and a great resolution. A cultural reference is made when Oberst sings about taking up his drum to keep time in a second-line, a traditional Cajun funeral march that serves as a celebration of life. “Time Forgot” is followed by “Zigzagging Toward The Light”, which is primarily about growing up and slowly reaching contentment. The song may catch long time Oberst fans by surprise however, as it features a heavy, muddily distorted guitar solo at the very end.
What caught my attention most during the first half of the album was Oberst’s use of Latin rhythms, which are featured on the back-to-back tracks “Hundreds of Ways” and “Artifact #1”. “Hundreds of Ways”, which was released as a 7” on Record Store Day, is refreshingly upbeat and features some amazing horn parts. “Artifact #1”, my favorite track, is driven by a very subtle Spanish nylon-stringed guitar. The track feels just like a night at a foreign beach. What truly moved me though was the melodious pedal steel guitar, delivered by Blake Mills of Dawes, which transitions perfectly from tremolo picking to smooth glissandos. It instills the sense of longing. The blending of music as well as poetry has always driven me to Oberst’s works, and this trend certainly continued and is solidified through the line “I don’t want a second chance, to be an object of desire, if that means slipping through your hands”.
The album features a few folky tracks that are reminiscent of those late nights spent drinking to Bright Eyes, usually with an Olde English in my case. “Enola Gay” has a slight rock feel to it however, as opposed to the other folky songs. It has a Tennessee vibe out, which was probably attributed to the fact that the album was recorded in Nashville. The track also features former Bright Eyes member Nathaniel Walcott on piano.
The final two tracks are some of the best on the album. “Desert Island Questionnaire” may be the catchiest, as well as most well written piece on the album. It features some very spacious sections, which build up to an incredible chord progression that brings a touch of chaos to the piece. “Post up at the bar and I’m double fistin’, talking to a mannequin. Don’t know what it means when he takes my pulse and says that I’m a lot like him”. The album closes with “Common Knowledge” which is ultimately about life as an artist, specifically as a writer. Oberst tackles the stigma that artists have to suffer as well as those who use art in a pretentious fashion to make themselves seem “misunderstood”. “Die young in the dark, that’s poetry. No that’s not meant to be, no that’s not for me”. Oberst finishes out the song, and the album, by giving the listener something to chew over for a bit “Call it luck or you can call it fate. But either way it’s how it happened, not the life that you imagine. So just go out with a bang like, Hemingway. Some would say your brave, some will say (the music builds up with a major scale, and resolves with) you ain’t.”
All in all, this album is fantastic from start to finish. Each song stands out as its own piece, while also blending into one great work of art in the form of the album. The only problem I had while reviewing this album was trying to figure out how to fit it all into one review of a reasonable length. Also that I’m reviewing an album, as opposed to analyzing its artistic content, and trust me, there’s a lot! There are so many moving lyrics and some truly beautiful instrumentation. When I found out that this album was supposed to be a return to Bright Eyes I was a bit worried. A lot of artists, after all, will have the album they say is the return to their roots, and often times it’s a wasted effort. Oberst, however, shows that an artist can return to his or her roots, while still growing their musical tree.
The album will be in stores on May 19th…get it. Trust me.
Patrick Kabot is a resident of Avalon Park. He graduated from Valencia with a pre-major degree in Jazz Guitar Performance and is currently attending UCF for an undergraduate in English Literature. Patrick plays in the local band Sela Dors, enjoys philosophy and is an avid tattoo enthusiast.