Conor Oberst - Upside Down Mountain (4 stars)

Conor Oberst - Upside Down Mountain

The Bright Eyes man delivers his most focused and mature - both sonically and lyrically - solo effort to date

With a prolific and somewhat intimidating diverse body of work already behind him, the one-time 'boy wonder' Conor Oberst can now be viewed as something of an elder statesman in the often whimsical world of rock/electro/folk (delete as appropriate) at the ripe old age of 34. Aside from his work as Bright Eyes’ main figurehead and talisman, which is now on indefinite hiatus, Oberst continues in the indie spirit of his Omaha-based outfit here on new effort Upside Down Mountain.

While his 2008 self-titled solo album had vague Mexicana flourishes and a raw Latin influence, this was quickly followed by its natural successor Outer South featuring the Oberst-led Mystic Valley Band. The result was a passive-aggressive democratic affair which felt disjointed as a result of its too many cooks mentality. Having relocated to Nashville for his latest recording sessions, fans eagerly anticipating his next move could have been forgiven for expecting an ‘O'Berst Where Art Thou?’ revisionist history through country pie musings associated with the Deep South. Yet while there are nods to Sam Phillips' Sun Studios recording techniques in places, tracks such as lead single ‘Hundreds of Ways’ seem to recall the jaunty fanfare of Paul Simon's Graceland, with its breezy calypso rhythm juxtaposed with the distinctive Laurel Canyon-esque backing vocals of Swedish sister duo First Aid Kit, who feature heavily throughout the album.

As opener ‘Time Forgot’ pulses with its barely-there tremors, a self-assured Oberst begins ‘Polished my shoes, I bought a brand new hat’, with an air of nonchalance that affirms his desire to shed the skin of previous incarnations. ‘Enola Gay’ has the familiar bluesy stomp and attitude of an angst-ridden Oberst trying to carefully rationalise the human condition through his oft surrealist word play. ‘It's crowded in the club where you meet your friends; try to save some room for the elephant.’ On the reflective acoustic ballad ‘You Are Your Mother's Child’ – a song which Oberst previously vocalised his ambivalence towards, due to its borderline gushing, scrapbook sentimentality – he is able to capture an element of pathos that is both poignant and uplifting with a wry self-deprecating wit. ‘Although he's a bastard make your papa proud.’ A beautiful song that easily takes pride of place amongst his most accomplished balladry à la ‘White Shoes’ or ‘First Day of My Life’. While Upside Down Mountain doesn't quite bottle the lightning of the exceptional Bright Eyes album I'm Wide Awake It's Morning it is however Conor Oberst's most focused and mature – both sonically and lyrically – solo effort to date, which will hopefully continue to cement his legacy as one of America's greatest songwriters at the moment.

Released via Nonesuch Records on Mon 19 May.

Conor Oberst

The American singer-songwriter, lead singer of Bright Eyes and member of Monsters of Folk turned solo artist brings his unique blend of angst-folk to the UK.

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