Conor Oberst burst out of his Omaha, Neb., bedroom seemingly fully formed, a precocious teen armed with a verbose vocabulary and enough emotion to make The Cure look stoic by comparison.
His first big artistic statement — 2002’s Lifted, or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, released under the moniker Bright Eyes through Saddle Creek Records, the still-functioning label he founded with some Omaha buddies — was a sprawling, melody-infested, often fascinating ride through the mind of a young man traversing the minefield of adult relationships for the first time. Its 73 minutes of music rarely failed to compel, coming off like a countryfied Neutral Milk Hotel or a schizophrenic version of early R.E.M. This was a 22-year-old with big ambitions and a boyishly expressive, instantly polarizing voice.
His various follow-ups — whether as Bright Eyes, in the punky Desaparecidos, under his own name or with the supergroup Monsters of Folk — seemed like the work of a talented but restless artist trying to decide who he wanted to be.
“It’s safe to say I’ve made a lot of terrible career decisions over the years,” Oberst recently told the New York Daily News when asked about following his various musical muses. “I know it can be confusing. But I respect a musician like Neil Young or Beck, who always switch things up. I’m lucky enough to have the kind of career that has allowed me to do that.”
Now 34, Oberst is about to release Upside Down Mountain, his first for Nonesuch Records and arguably his best and most cohesive effort since Lifted. Take the Michael Penn-esque “Zigzagging Toward the Light” — its textured, acoustic-driven arrangement and evocative wordplay are complemented by a voice that finally sounds comfortable, one that is no longer eager to transcend the song it inhabits.
Oberst, backed by Dawes, on The Tonight Show recently:
CONOR OBERST plays the Taft Theatre on Tuesday, May 27. Tickets/more info here .