Singer-songwriter Conor Oberst’s debut album for Nonesuch Records, Upside Down Mountain, is, as its title implies, a study in contrasts, a glance up to the heavens and a glimpse into the abyss. “There’s a certain solitude to this record,” Oberst admits, and themes of loneliness, dislocation, and regret repeatedly surface. Yet its making was far from solitary, as Oberst gathered friends old and new for the recording, including producer Jonathan Wilson, engineer Andy LeMaster, bassist Macey Taylor, multi-instrumentalist Blake Mills, and the Swedish sibling folk-rock vocal duo First Aid Kit. On hushed ballads like “Double Life” and “Artifact #1,” the instrumentation is often stripped down to voices, guitar, and ghostly keyboard; those songs are juxtaposed with tracks like “Governor’s Ball,” which sports practically buoyant horn charts, and “Kick,” which is exuberant rock and roll. A squall of electric guitar at the end of “Zigzagging Toward the Light” segues into a Johnny Cash shuffle on “Hundreds of Ways.” The overall warmth of the sound tempers the starkness of the stories being told and Oberst renders his carefully detailed lyrics with an easy intimacy, the still youthful quaver in his voice poignantly underscoring the rueful, decidedly mature words.
Upside Down Mountain also, says Oberst, stands in deliberate contrast to the harder-edged, hypnotically electronic material on 2011’s The People’s Key, his previous album with Bright Eyes, or the thrashing social commentary of side-project Desaparecidos: “I’m always reacting to what I did most recently. The songs I had been working on before this, for the last Bright Eyes record, they were personal to me and had come from elements of my life, but I wanted them to be bigger, cryptic, coded, to find words I hadn’t found in songs before. And working on the Desaparecidos stuff, it’s such a specific project and demands a more topical approach. It’s made with that purpose in mind.”
“Maybe this is a return to an earlier way I wrote songs,” he continues. “It’s more intimate or personal, if you will. Even it all my songs come from the same place, you make different aesthetic decisions along the way. For me, language is a huge part of why I make music. I’m not the greatest guitar player or piano player—I’m not the greatest singer, either—but I feel if I can come up with melodies I like that are fused with poetry I’m proud of, then that’s what I bring to the table. That’s why I’m able to do this.”
Oberst began to develop the songs that would comprise Upside Down Mountain while he was still figuring out where and how he was going to formally embark on the project. What started as exploratory demos with producer-musician Jonathan Wilson at his Fivestar Studios in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, in a home Wilson rents from Oberst, became the first de facto album sessions. Oberst found a simpatico collaborator in Wilson. Like Oberst, he’s a formidable record-maker whose own material slyly slips past folk-rock convention to foray into jazz, psychedelic rock, and symphonic pop. Oberst notes: “Jonathan is one of those special people who communicates through music so effortlessly and plays every instrument so well. He has his own vision but we are very similar because we’re both laid back in a way. There’s not a lot of fuss over every little sound. All that is secondary to getting an emotional response to the music, getting the overall feel right. We work on a song until we’re really stoked about it, but the process doesn’t have to feel stressful.”
Returning to his native Omaha, Nebraska, Oberst kept rolling with the help of frequent collaborator, engineer, and friend Andy LeMaster at his own ARC Studios. Even more tracking followed in Omaha last November and December. Then Oberst and Wilson moved south to Blackbird Studio in Nashville. “We went to mix but we ended up re-tracking things because they had these nice microphones and outboard gear that we thought we should take advantage of. So those were the three spots we recorded in, stretched out over a year. Jonathan was a huge part of it, and Andy helped a lot and the engineer Bryce Gonzales was a big part of it too.” Like several narrative threads that re-emerge throughout the album—about longing or leaving, about a better life somewhere past the spotlight—particular musical ideas repeat in an almost dream-like fashion, like memories floating back into focus. Oberst says, “I like that about the album, the way these elements appear. They help tie it together.”
Though only 34, Oberst has been a recording artist for more than two decades, starting with raw, acoustic guitar-based bedroom tracks he cut as a young teenager and initially released on cassette. After his early Omaha-based band Commander Venus broke up, Oberst recast himself as Bright Eyes, an umbrella name for Oberst, producer-keyboardist Mike Mogis and multi-instrumentalist/arranger Nathaniel Wolcott, and a shifting group of collaborators. By the time he released Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground on Saddle Creek, the label he helped found with friends in Omaha, Oberst was a word-of-mouth success, with an avid young audience that helped to sell out his tours. The critics soon followed. Rolling Stone called him “a true American original: the ghost of Walt Whitman setting up shop in the wraith-white, rail-thin frame of an acoustic-strumming Nebraska Cure fan.” The 2005 simultaneous release of two markedly different Bright Eyes albums—the more singer-songwriter-oriented I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and the darker, computerized Digital Ash in a Digital Urn—displayed the breadth of his talent. Time magazine listed I’m Wide Awake among its top 10 albums of the year. Since then, Bright Eyes has continued to evolve, its lineup morphing with each successive tour. While supporting his 2007 Cassadaga album, Oberst took over New York City’s Town Hall for a week of sold-out shows, with his large, string-augmented ensemble outfitted spectacularly in white suits. He’s also recorded and toured with Mogis, Jim James, and M. Ward as Monsters of Folk as well as with his own Mystic Valley Band. For the first leg of his summer 2014 tour, he’s bringing along Wilson’s other pals, the Southern Californian quartet Dawes as his support act and backing band.
“I feel lucky that I have been able to do this for as longs as I have,” declares Oberst. “I’ve seen so many talented friends come and go, for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes they stop making music because they can’t pay the bills or they lose the passion for it. At this point it is my life. I don’t know another way to live. There is something fundamental in myself; I have to be this way. It completes what I am.”
For the Upside Down Mountain cover art, Oberst asked fellow musician, artist, and pal Ian Felice, of The Felice Brothers, to craft a new painting. But, recalls Oberst, “I kept thinking back to this other painting of his, The Creation of the Bulls. The image of the sun and the bulls just stuck with me.” And it clearly complements the album title, which is a lyrical fragment from the album track, “Lonely at the Top.” “To me, it’s kind of a perspective thing. Sometimes you think life is made up of these big moments, these big decisions, but in the end it’s the minutes and the moments in between that give them shape.”