“I’m blessed with a heart that doesn’t stop,” Conor Oberst declares in a still-boyish voice in the aptly titled “Zigzagging Toward the Light.” At 34, the former indie-rock prodigy still writes and sings about the high times and bad choices of adolescence, on the way to matured love and responsibility, like the sharpest kid in the room: a florid Midwest Morrissey with Jeff Tweedy’s twisted-pop savvy. “What a time to live among the ashen remnants of a love/That came before,” Oberst sings in “Hundreds of Ways,” against a sambalike sway, country guitar and brass. “I’m still looking for that now,” he adds eagerly.
Oberst faces west and backward, brilliantly, on Upside Down Mountain. A sumptuous immersion in Seventies California folk pop, it is the most immediately charming album he has ever made. Co-producer Jonathan Wilson, playing and leading a Laurel Canyon big band’s worth of guitars and keyboards, frames the wreckage and Oberst’s wishfulness like a younger David Lindley. That earthy luxury is also lined with gripping unease: the prickly electronics in the soft buoyance of “Time Forgot”; the Nashville-via-Tijuana noir of “Artifact #1”; the disruptive drum crash, like a slammed door, in “Double Life.” But like Neil Young‘s Harvest and Jackson Browne‘s Late for the Sky, this is dreaming stalked by despair, then charged with rebound. “There are hundreds of ways,” Oberst sings in that song, “to get through the day. . . . Now you just find one.” Here’s a good place to start.