Conor Oberst returns to Aspen with ‘Upside Down Mountain’
If You Go …
Who: Conor Oberst
Where: Belly Up Aspen
When: Wednesday, Sept. 24, 9 p.m.
Tickets and more info: www.bellyupaspen.com
There was a time when Conor Oberst wrote, recorded and released songs compulsively. Starting his first band and founding a record label at age 13, melodies and lyrics came out in a torrent of albums, singles, vinyl and cassette oddities — there were solo singer-songwriter efforts, side bands and his long-running Bright Eyes studio project.
So after a nearly two-decade-long creative barrage, the three years between Oberst’s last record, 2011’s “The People’s Key,” from Bright Eyes, and this year’s solo record, “Upside Down Mountain,” is quite a while in Oberst years.
“I definitely slowed down a bit,” Oberst, who plays Belly Up tonight, said from a recent tour stop in Boulder. “I got married. I realized at a certain point that I was a workaholic and had been for a long time, so the idea of allowing more time to live a regular life and get away from the hustle and bustle of show business and all that has been a good thing for me personally and for my writing. There are only so many songs you can write about being in a hotel room.”
When he was writing the songs that make up “Upside Down Mountain,” Oberst spent time alone after-hours in a friend’s furniture store on Crosby Street in Manhattan, where he’s emigrated from his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. When he writes songs, he said, he mostly starts with “singing nonsensical sounds” to find a vocal melody and then puts lyrics on top. Out of courtesy to his wife and neighbors, he moved into the furniture shop to work out the songs.
“It’s hard to belt something out when people might be listening,” he said with a laugh.
Shuffling off to the shop with his guitar case, Oberst, 34, found “Upside Down Mountain.”
The new album, his first with Nonesuch Records, was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee, and produced by Jonathan Wilson (a singer-songwriter himself, who opens tonight’s show for Oberst), who has previously demonstrated a knack for balancing old-school Laurel Canyon acoustic-folk textures with contemporary sounds on records by Dawes and Father John Misty.
“He’s not someone who’s a revivalist or anything,” Oberst said of Wilson. “He wants to make modern records. … I think we bonded over that in the studio — keeping some classic folk-rock elements but also tweaking it a little bit. We want it to sound like 2014, not 1974.”
The new songs are charming, folky and seemingly simple and stick largely to first-person narratives, though they trade in the melancholy melodrama of Oberst’s early material. You couldn’t quite call them polished, but they are focused. They’re several years and albums removed from the cracking-voiced catharsis and confessional poetry that first brought him to all of our attention, and they’re mellow compared with the bombast and emo-tinged alt-country of 2005’s “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” that saddled him with the “voice of a generation” tag he never wanted.
In Jonathan Franzen’s 2010 book “Freedom,” a social novel of the early 21st century, the writer uses Oberst to epitomize millennial youth culture’s sincerity and contrasts it with the ironic detachment of Generation X. Franzen puts two of his middle-aged main characters at a Bright Eyes show at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., during the “Lifted” tour of 2002-03, among a young crowd of “flat-haired boys and fashionably unskinny girls.” One man is a Bright Eyes believer, and the other — the aging punk rocker Richard Katz — is disgusted by the wimpy vibe and the kids watching a show “to ritually repudiate, for an hour or two on a Saturday night, the cynicism and anger of their elders.”
The novel immortalizes Oberst in his rock wunderkind moment — recounting the legend of his precocious beginnings and capturing the rapturous following that he inspired in the early ’00s.
But he’s not so easily explained — Oberst’s creative swerves have seen him experimenting with folk and punk, protest music and electronic sounds.
“There’s some element of what I do that, despite all the different bands and all the different production styles and arrangements, that’s fundamental about what I do, that’s a through line in all the different records and projects,” he said.
He’s taken a cue from artists like Neil Young, Lou Reed and Beck, who willfully defy categorization and experiment without fear of leaving listeners behind.
“Once you start to guess what your audience wants to hear and try to create that, you’re putting yourself in a negative cycle where you’re just going to make worse versions of what you’ve already done,” he explained. “So I hope to keep changing and following my nose and what’s interesting to me at whatever given time.”
His new album is more a singer-songwriter record than anything else, though it includes some rockabilly swagger (“Hundreds of Ways”), electronic flourishes (“Time Forgot”), touches of horns (“Governor’s Ball”) and a disorienting pedal steel on the standout “Double Life.” That song, like much of his new stuff, comes with the empathy and sincerity that Franzen singled out, but it’s delivered with an emotional restraint that lends Oberst’s “Upside Down Mountain” songs a tense new power — maybe wisdom — that started emerging on his self-titled 2008 record.
Set lists on his current tour have included the new material along with Bright Eyes songs going back to 2000’s “Fevers and Mirrors,” others that he recorded with the Mystic Valley Band, and a favored John Prine cover. But the songs are always evolving.
“A big part of what I enjoy most about making music, especially in a live setting, is that you’re collaborating and experimenting and finding the strengths of the players you have in whatever given incarnation and being able to reinterpret songs,” Oberst said, “especially for some of the songs we’re playing this tour that are more than 10 years old and begging for reinterpretation.”
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