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Since cleaning up his act around the time of Bright Eyes' 2007 album Cassadaga, their leader Conor Oberst has been more prolific than ever, indulging seemingly every whim, while also trying to appease his fans. His best album in the period was his first self-titled solo album from 2008. Since then he indulged himself by releasing Outer South with the Mystic Valley Band which, while sounding fun, seemed to water down his writing prowess. This was also true when working with Jim James, M. Ward and Mike Mogis when the foursome seemed to cave to fan demand and release the long-anticipated but ultimately middling-quality Monsters of Folk album. The last Bright Eyes album, 2011's The People's Key, also seemed to be an accession to fan demand to a certain extent. The Rastafarian influenced album had some interesting ideas, but seemed to be much more subdued and less biting than anything previously released by the band.

Probably the most worthwhile project that Oberst has undertaken in the half-decade or so before the release of Upside Down Mountain was the resurrection of his early 2000s punk group Desaparecidos. This once again seemed to be more to appease the demands of the fans, but ultimately must have been quite a relief to Oberst who got to play loud and cathartic music with old friends without pressure to write or record anything new (although the band did put out a new single). This was seemingly a slate-wiping-clean tour for Oberst, who then set off to release another new album, but entirely solo once again.

Upside Down Mountain then, perhaps for the first time, finds Oberst content with being content, and working for himself. His songwriting hasn't sounded so effortless for a long time. Although it might seem schmaltzy to hear him opening up lead single 'Hundreds of Ways' with the lines "What a thing to be a witness to the sunshine / what a dream to just be walking on the ground," it plays into the beautifully happy song that majestically weaves horns, female backing and plucked mandolin to sell its uplifting mantra. And, if you listen closely, there's still some classic Oberstian scorn slipped in there too: "It took centuries to build these twisted cities / it took seconds to reduce them down to dust." A lot of the magic of Upside Down Mountain comes from moments like this where Oberst will take you into his mindset with his never dulled ability to paint pictures, and then hit you with something unexpected. These might not necessarily be scornful, but in fact quite sweet. Take for example from 'Artifact #1': "Stood on the banks of the Potomac / We watched the water rushing by / You said we should live in the moment / Then I'd miss you all the time." Moments like this crop up on pretty much all of the thirteen songs on the record.

There's a lot of variation in the style on the album. From the aforementioned wistful pop of 'Hundreds Of Ways', to the languishing country blues of 'Double Life', to the fun and light pop jam of 'Kick', with several other bases covered in between, Oberst and producer Jonathan Wilson have found an ideal vehicle for each lyric. Although Oberst's long-time partner and collaborator Mike Mogis barely features here, the production is certainly informed by his style. All of the instruments shimmer throughout, backing vocals glide effortlessly in and out, and there are often inchoate shivers of percussion or organ rumbling through the tracks. The clarity of the production even when there is plenty in the mix adds to the inoffensive and easy listening style of the album. Nevertheless, perhaps the most arresting song on the album 'You Are Your Mother's Child' is its most stripped down, featuring just Oberst and guitar. In this heartfelt song Oberst tells the story of a child growing up and growing away from home. Using memories of problematic infancy, childhood Halloween costumes, baseball games, graduation and more the described life is rendered truly emotionally, even by someone who is not a parent to people who aren't parents.

There's plenty of talk around the topic of whether musical artists can still be as potent once they've gotten clean, grown up, or matured. Around the turn of the century when Bright Eyes were at their strongest, their leader also seemed at his most strung out, fragile and emotionally high strung. This seemingly won the band equal amounts of detractors as it did admirers, but nobody could disagree that Oberst had a magnetic character that imbued the band's music with a rawness that made them stand out in an era when the musical field was ever widening thanks to the onset of the internet. It's almost a decade since Oberst's last truly great album, but he's been making music for so long that it's easy to forget that he's still a relatively young man - only in his mid-thirties. The youthful passion may have died out, but Upside Down Mountain suggests that he's starting to move into a new period of his career where he can use his wisdom to write songs that are passionate in a new, more mature way, without having to try to dredge up an old fire that doesn't quite burn as violently anymore. It's a sure sign that one of today's most talented songwriters is getting a long-awaited second wind.

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