Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
After nearly a decade on hiatus, Conor Oberst and his bandmates haven’t taken their return to Bright Eyes lightly. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is more expansive than anything Oberst has attempted throughout the 2010s, including his solo albums, with his punk band Desaparecidos, and his collab with Phoebe Bridgers in Better Oblivion Community Center. Their 10th album also captures the mood of 2020 in a way that only Oberst can. At times it feels turbulent, sometimes even excessive, but it’s packed with so much drama that it’s hard to look away.
Conor Oberst first started putting his gloomy poetry to music when he was a teenager, and his cult following has largely undergone the process of ageing alongside him. Although Bright Eyes is largely considered Oberst’s solo project, long time contributors Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott have been on the journey with him for some time now. On their first album released via Dead Oceans (their first not released on Oberst’s own label Saddle Creek), they both factored into the songwriting process more than ever before on this and it pays dividends. It’s more adventurous than it is an ambitious record, like three seasoned musical auteurs reconvening to realise their more obscure visions, but from a place where there is nothing to lose.
In fact, Bright Eyes enlist a bombastic entourage of talented guests on this album, including one of the world’s most acclaimed drummers in Jon Theodore (The Mars Volta, Queens of the Stone Age), and best known bassists in Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers). The album credits a cast of over 50 musicians or vocalists that recorded the songs in three studios across Omaha and Los Angeles last year, contributing everything from oboes, mellotrons and string sections to epic gospel choirs and of course the occasional timpani roll.
This ties in with a theme of the album in that Oberst shows a thirst for connection and community in difficult times. Back on Fever and Mirrors (2000) our narrator was very much stuck inside his own head, and we loved him for it. The Conor Oberst of 2020 is just as thoughtful as ever, but his musings are informed by experience instead of by wonder and expectation.
While the general gradient of Oberst is that he’s gotten a little less sad throughout each release in his career, this album is a sore departure from that trend, as Bright Eyes tap into adolescent gloom like it never left. Having lost his brother and a seven-year marriage in the past few years, there is genuinely dark material for Oberst to navigate his way through, and this is weaved right through to its very title.
Opening track Pageturners Rag feels like a customary track one on a Bright Eyes album, comprised of a spoken word skit, this time in Spanish, amidst ragtime piano in the hustle and bustle of a basement bar. On Dance and Sing Oberst perseveres through grief, musing that one has “Gotta keep on going like it ain’t the end/ Gotta change like you’re life’s depending on it,” and a line that sums up the album as well as any, stating “I guess all I can do is dance on through.”
The grand scale of the album becomes most apparent on Mariana Trench, which speaks of the smallness of humankind when confronted with the size and scope of the world and the passage of time. The sentiment sets the album up well for the twists and turns that ensue. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was offers up a dazzling array of sounds on an apocalyptic scale, with everything from the waltzing funeral-dirge bagpipes of Persona Non Grata, to the new-wave bounce of Pan and Broom, to the shadowy electronica of One and Done.
The delicate piano of Hot Car in the Sun shows Oberst at his most tender. “Chopped the celery and made the soup/ Didn’t know what else to do/ I was dreaming of my ex wife’s face.” This is a reminder that we’re not listening to a boy anymore, the Oberst we’re encountering now isn’t pining for love the way he used to, he is now looking back at it with lived experience and the baggage that comes with it.
Forced Convalescence is an acknowledgement of ageing with a melancholy smirk. “Went out of town for the weekend/ With my children/ Built sandcastles in the sun/ Catastrophizing my birthday/ Turning 40/ Ending up like everyone.” The Conor Oberst of 2020 is not the same one we got to know so well back in the 2000s, but he’s still one we want to spend time with. It’s not as raw as it used to be, but Oberst hasn’t lost that tremor in his voice that carries with it decades of emotion for the listener as well. He is still tackling the biggest questions with boldness and heart-wrenching intimacy.
To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts) is a tapestry of the synthetic and organic, with melodies shuffling across each other and colliding at all the right times. Calais to Dover seems to hark back and capture some of the buoyant anger of a Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (2002) style track, but even then with a bit more glam on the guitar and the snarling retort: “Nothing is changing, sorry to state the obvious.”
The album closes on the smooth and meditative Comet Song which takes the apocalyptic theme of the album to its inevitable conclusion. Even though the album was recorded last year, its motif of oppressive dislocation hits home in a world that’s spent the thick of 2020 in COVID-19 lockdown.
While it doesn’t sound like any previous Bright Eyes album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was also doesn’t abandon any of the elements that make Bright Eyes albums great. It is still rich with emotion, and yet the music carrying the stories forward takes you on leaps of faith and to places even longterm fans will feel like they haven’t been before. This return feels like a reconciliation of sorts, not just for Oberst but also for the listener; in coming to terms with “Bright Eyes” as a project or moniker of the artist and what it means to them now.
If you feel like you’re supposed to be a grown up now but still don’t feel like one, Oberst is still fielding life’s questions for you. Despite all the grief and predictable gloom in the lyrics on this album, we once again have the privilege of viewing things through his fractured yet colourful collage of observation, where hope is always there to provide a vivid and necessary contrast.