Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Album Review: 'Upside Down Mountain' is One Fine Way to Get Through the Day

Upside Down Mountain, Connor Obersts' third record under his own name, is in equal measures deeply thought provoking and blissfully light. While not a first-wave Bright Eyes fan (and therefore have no axe to grind with Oberst about the maladaptive effect of mainstream attention) I am knowledgeable enough about his history to know that he has always had a talent for deeply rich lyrics exploring the biggest questions of life. This outing is no different and houses more than enough revelations and memorable refrains to provide the soundtrack to any number of collegiate summer drives or serve as the soundtrack to any number of life’s internal conversations.

As a whole, the album is all about the hope you find in the face of life seemingly endless heartache.  The songs form a greater dialouge that, like all good records, builds upon itself to become greater than the sum of its parts.  In short, it is precisely the type of album I am drawn to the most at this point in my life because it has a lot to say but does so with well-composed restraint, intimacy and understanding. Personally, I was hooked after the first track, the powerful Time Forgot, where Oberst ends the song perfectly with: "someone told me that exact same thing once."

At risk of waxing too philosophical, the biggest reason I listen to music is because I am always seeking to understand myself through the pointed meanderings of another voice. That drive forms the foundation for my passion in all artistic mediums and, much like the myriad of messages and ideas brought up in Upside Down Mountain, is a universal truth. While holding onto our personal truths makes us who we are, I believe it is by recognizing and celebrating the things that make us the same that gives us the hope to get through the day.
Upside Down Mountain starts off with “Time Forgot" which infuses thundering drum fills with strum-heavy Americana while exploring the universal struggles of everyday life. “Hundreds Of Ways” is about resigning oneself to the strange cost of freedom and packs a blissful melody that rings with that magical sort of melancholy that only happily married 30-something rock stars seem to deliver.  There is a twinge of hopefulness amidst the melancholia as Oberst tells a friend or lover: “There are hundreds of ways to get through the day...just find one.”

“Desert Island Quesitonairre” explores the old  ‘what is reality’ chestnut with the endless hypotheticals of a philosophy club smoke-den layered against some great riffs and spirited vocals. During the reverb-heavy "Artifact #1" Oberst croons that “life can’t compete with memories – they never have to change.” Memories will always bring us up and break us back down which ties into the albums over-arching theme that willful acquiescence to life is the best route to holding onto your soul.

The album has no bad tracks, only a few cool downs among standouts like the minimalistic parental pep-talk “You are Your Mothers Child” and the lively “Kick” which delivers some of that good old fashioned new wave chaos while exploring personal recovery from a broadly familiar setting. The whimsical wah guitar tempers the tone of the beautiful waltz "Double Life," which features one of the catchiest refrains of the album: "There's an honest life on the other side."

All in all, Upside Down Mountain is about a lot of things, but mostly I see it as an album focused on universal hope. That might not everyone’s cup of tea but it is something that everyone needs to hear from time-to-time and that is what makes this album soar.  In the midst of Obersts’ active chorus and endless meandering there is the pointed suggestion that we are all one in the same and there is a fortress within each of us that we can call upon whenever the going gets tough.  As someone who finds himself inundated with his own relentless internal monologue on a daily basis, songs like “Hundreds of Ways” provide a great way to get through the day as well as the comforting thought that I am not alone.

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