More about: Bright Eyes
For all the slaloming Bright Eyes made over the course of their initial run, a couple of things held true about their early records: they never began accessibly, and they were never particularly soothing affairs. That the former remains true of this first album in nine years serves to oddly negate the latter; in a world that has taken a profound turn for the darker since 2011’s The People’s Key, there is comfort in familiarity.
When ‘Pageturner’s Rag’ brings up the curtain on Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was in awkward, obtuse fashion - part scratchy ragtime piece, part bilingual spoken-word field recording - it continues a time-honoured tradition instituted by the likes of ‘The Big Picture’, ‘Clairaudients (Kill or Be Killed)’ and ‘Firewall’, one of staring down the listener and hammering home the idea that what they hear over the following hour or so will be entirely on the band’s own terms. And yet, in 2020, such confrontation is suddenly a balm - a reminder that the more things change, the more they stay the same.
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And things have changed for Bright Eyes - personally, professionally, creatively. Conor Oberst’s precocious twenties gave way to tumultuous thirties, at the end of which he’s lost a brother and a wife, and gained a cyst in his brain and a smattering of grey hairs. He’s arrived at 40 only to realise that the milestone hasn’t offered him the peace he always hoped it would.
The journey to this latest album has been flecked with frustration: in 2014, the handsome, thoughtful solo album Upside Down Mountain played like a spiritual successor to Bright Eyes' most commercially successful LP I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, but sunk without trace in the media maelstrom created by a false rape allegation. His finest collection of songs in over a decade Ruminations, followed in 2016, but even by Oberst’s plaintive standards it was a disquieting listen, one that raised serious questions about his state of mind. Accordingly, the most important takeaway from Better Oblivion Community Center - last year’s collaborative outing with Phoebe Bridgers - was the fact he seemed to be enjoying himself again.
By that time, the spectre of Bright Eyes had loomed back into view. Oberst returned to his native Omaha in 2016, and once he purchased a new house close to bandmate Mike Mogis’ - with an outbuilding they turned into a studio - a tenth record was always in prospect. That the pair, plus third and final member Nate Walcott only agreed to make it a reality at a 2017 Christmas party is important; this is not a piecemeal collection of songs that span the length of their absence. Instead, two years ago, the trio sat down in the same room and set about figuring out what a new Bright Eyes effort sounds like.
This is a maximalist record: one that employs strings, horns and choirs; one that makes maverick left turns (bagpipes on ‘Persona Non Grata’, juddering, Drake-referencing drum machines on ‘Pan and Broom’); and one that allows itself the occasional, thrilling collapse into out-and-out drama (see the breakdown that closes ‘One and Done’). ‘To Death’s Heart’ (In Three Parts)’ meanwhile, feels like Down in the Weeds… in microcosm: a nervy, juddering epic that takes the push-pull dynamic between the darkness of Oberst’s inner sanctum and the horror of the outside world to its logical conclusion: referencing, as it does, both the self-hatred that the end of his marriage induced and the 2015 massacre at the Bataclan in Paris.
Crucially, this is an album that also speaks to the times on a musical level. In a landscape in which playlists are king and where artists are increasingly breaking genre moulds to fit their vision, Bright Eyes have produced their most diverse, restless collection since Lifted…or the Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground in 2002. There is rollicking folk rock in the spirit of Cassadaga’s airier moments in both ‘Tilt-A-Whirl’ and ‘Calais to Dover’, and there’s spacier, synth-driven fare that picks up The People’s Key’s palette remarkably smoothly (‘Mariana Trench’, especially). ‘Hot Car in the Sun’s piano-and-slide atmospherics summon the tortured ghost of Ruminations, whilst the elegant sweep of closer ‘Comet Song’ feels like new ground entirely.
With that, familiar hangups inevitably resurface. As has often been the case in the past, Down in the Weeds…- at fourteen tracks and nearly an hour - is too long. Occasionally, too, it is sonically dense to the point of being cluttered, but it’s easy enough to forgive these points as foibles rather than flaws when on every other front, Bright Eyes have aged gracefully.
As much as Oberst is still talking about the same things as he always has, there is no attempt to tap back into the post-adolescent histrionics of Fevers and Mirrors, or the quarter-life crisis of I’m Wide Awake… Instead, for somebody so dissatisfied with early middle age’s failure to provide him with answers to all those earlier questions, he tackles it not just with real wisdom, but a pleasing gallows humour, too (“now I’ve recovered completely, life is easy / hula-hooping around the sun” is a particular highlight from ‘Forced Convalescence’).
The upshot is that this is a true Bright Eyes record, complete with everything that entails: Oberst’s sage outlook is one of only a handful of indicators to the passing of time. Much will be made of how spookily prescient it feels lyrically in this pandemic climate, but in truth, catastrophising over the apparent gloom of our collective direction is something that Oberst has been doing since he was a teenager. You could pick up any of his albums and pluck out myriad lines that feel apt in 2020. Down in the Weeds… was always going to be a song worth singing - whether that was as the warning they devised it as, or as the elegy that it’s become.
Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was is out now.
More about: Bright Eyes