“Everything that was written about me was like, look how young this person is,” Oberst says, as Beck plays over the auditorium speakers. “And all of the sudden, you are over the hill. There’s no time to be in the middle.”
The excellent Upside Down Mountain is not a “grown-up” record so much as early Bright Eyes releases like Lifted are “young” ones – they exist where they do by chronology and not ethos – and to classify it as “cheered up” is a rather lazy classification: sure, a (relatively) older, married man wrote it. And sure, it’s not as openly venomous as some of his earlier work. But amongst the gorgeous orchestration and poetic verse is proof of a man who can paint both the light and dark sides of human experience better than most – the joys of love but the mournful loss of freedom, the quest to preserve rather than experience the moment, the wandering trail of imagination.
“It’s a bit less conceptual than a lot of my other records,” Oberst says. “One thing we were conscious of was musical, the threads that could reappear throughout it and create that cohesion between the songs.” Tools like rubber band melodies that snap and pull unexpectedly, wistful guitar by Jonathan Wilson, who produced the LP and ethereal harmonies courtesy of Swedish duo First Aid Kid lace it all together.
It had been three years since Oberst released an album in any incarnation – he’d been spending his time focused on a screenplay inspired by Monsters of Folk, his “supergroup” with Jim James, M. Ward and Mike Mogis (“it started as a joke,’ he says, and became a bit of an obsession). He spent time with his wife, whom he met in Mexico while recording Conor Oberst, and did a tour with the more punk-focused Desaparecidos. But his overall process has slowed down a little, too.
“As I get older, I write less songs,” he says. Despite a few creases here and there, his face is still boyish, angular, his eyes popping from behind heavy brows. “But I think I’m writing songs I like more now. I’m not working at such a frantic pace.” He credits some of this to Mrs. Oberst. “From a practical standpoint, I love hanging out with her. I don’t say she makes me lazy – but there is someone around, and there is less time when I am left to my own devices. Where I used to just daydream, it now takes a little more concerted effort.”
One thing about Oberst that is often overlooked – and beautifully showcased on Upside Down Mountain – is his sheer strength as a singer. Yes, we’re not talking about some classically trained powerhouse, but he possesses an uncanny hold on the fragile strength of his range, squeezing his voice to the tip of its emotional capacity, grasping at syllables in uncanny moments, hitting an off-beat in a way that’s viscerally disarming. But please, don’t call it emo. In fact, don’t call it anything.
“It’s a blessing and a curse I always sound like myself,” he says.
Because perhaps another key distinguishing fact about Oberst is how he doesn’t comfortably fall into any genre – something he plays with himself (releasing an “electric” record, Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, in 2005, was one way). There was an eager rush to classify Upside Down Mountain as country-tinged, mostly due to the fact it was recorded in Nashville. But it’s really no more or less country than I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, with its guest vocals by Emmylou Harris – and folk influence, certainly, has always been a part of Oberst’s craft.
“The album is all over the place, but I wouldn’t describe it as a country album,” he says. “That’s always been in my music to some degree. I try to blend things up so that it doesn’t fall into some Pandora algorithm too easily. I find that model kind of insulting. Things are good not because of a genre, but because they have substance. Just because you like Pearl Jam doesn’t mean you are going to like the other 50 bands that sound like Pearl Jam. To me it’s usually the opposite.”
“Have you ever listened to your own Pandora station?” I’d asked him when we chatted on the phone earlier in March, while he was still in New York.
“I never have actually,” he laughs. “I should try that. I’m sure I will be displeased in some way.”
What’s on the station? The Shins, Modest Mouse, Death Cab for Cutie, the White Stripes, the Postal Service. When I bring this up to Oberst at the Ryman, he leans back in his chair and smirks.
“Kind of like, a late ’90s, early 2000s indie rock vibe,” he says. “At least it’s interesting that it’s bands. I thought it would be guys with guitars,” he adds, feigning a little strum.
“I just find that idea of algorithms suggesting things insulting as a human being. The innovators vs. imitators vibe.”
In fact, it’s Oberst’s intentional desire to stay innovative which keeps him constantly mixing up his musical vehicles – and he intends to remain that way, hesitant to commit to recording solo, as Bright Eyes, or with the Mystic Valley Band, whom he recruited for his eponymous debut and its follow-up, Outer South. “It helps me to keep a fresh outlook to play with different people. I’ve always admired someone like Beck or Neil Young who make a lot of different sounding records but they have enough essence to what they do. I’m like a bad chameleon,” he says, resurrecting a metaphor he’s used before. “I’m trying to wear different outfits, but it’s still me up there.”