Conor Oberst has an admirable diversity as a musician. Best known for his Nebraska folk, he’s also done louder emo work with Desaparecidos, and a digital album with Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Fast or slow, melodically direct or subtle, about love or life, his songs have incredible range. Yet, despite this penchant for variety, Oberst cannot shed his need for serious, scrutinized lyrics. It’s his crutch, and the reason Upside Down Mountain, his most recent album, sometimes fails.
The way Oberst constructs lyrics contrasts diametrically with how he composes melodies. Always his best skill, Upside Down Mountain features some incredible, unexpected, variegated melodies. While he reverts to the same formula when writing lyrics, there seems to be no end to Oberst’s creativity when it comes to finding melody. This melodic variety leads to constant excitement, unanticipated freshness, and beauty.
For example, “Lonely at the Top” features Oberst at his absolute melodic best. The song croons, slowly, and then Oberst quietly slams every syllable of the words “panorama”, “paranoia”, and “absolution.” What he does has such subtlety, unusualness, and effectiveness. It’s the type of melody that makes Oberst stand out. Oberst’s many imitators might be able to mimic his lyrical style, but they cannot match that kind of melodic sophistication.
Every song on Upside Down Mountain features some different, original melodic turn. One cannot find a pattern to his melodies. “Enola Gay” comes at you straight, you don’t have to work too hard. “Artifact #1” features meandering vocal highs and lows and interesting choices in where Oberst places his words in space. Each song features something melodically different.
The album could benefit from more variety in Oberst’s lyrical constructions. His overwrought, serious style works on many songs, but it ruins others. For example, “Kick” has great energy and Oberst – naturally – found a beautiful vocal melody to layer atop the chord structure. The lyrics, however, feel too erudite for this particular tune. It would sound better with intuitive, visceral, spontaneous writing. Throughout Upside Down Mountain, Oberst fails to lyrically match the ingenuity, variety, and intuitive brilliance of his melodies.
Upside Down Mountain deals with some heavy themes: general malaise, the cruelty of life, thoughts of suicide, and lost love. The last song – “Common Knowledge”— closes with a foreboding desire to “go out with a bang like Hemingway.” This feels eerily similar to listening to Elliott Smith before his suicide. One wants to grab Oberst and tell him he wrote a great album, console him in any way. When he’s cheered a bit, it wouldn’t hurt to also whisper that the album would be even greater if he could loosen that tie around his soul, especially when writing lyrics.