Photo by Danny Cohen, courtesy of Grandstand.
When Conor Oberst retired Bright Eyes after 2011’s The People’s Key, it was a full stop to match that record’s “hitching a ride off this planet on a returning UFO” vibe. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, the first Bright Eyes album in nine years, is a surprising, welcome return to this planet that feels compelled to, but not overly preoccupied with, justifying its existence.
Here, Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, and Nate Walcott touch on many of the styles they’ve incorporated over the years—demonstrative, bristly folk; tightly coiled electronic rock; alt country, and dramatically orchestrated indie pop—but make sure to mix them in new ways, and to add new wrinkles to warrant their resurrection. Bagpipes only add to the indecision of “Persona Non Grata”’s nervous waltz. Horns and booming tympani accentuate the surprisingly sweet vulnerability of “Stairwell Song.” Album highlight “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)” is an ever-shifting rumination on grief, mortality and the perception of time. It’s draped in art rock synths and slide guitar that doesn’t quite sound like anything else in the band’s catalog, yet still sounds exactly like Bright Eyes.
Down in the Weeds grapples with loss—Oberst weathered a difficult stretch in his life, including the death of his brother—and is shot through with the human frailty and relentless, restless searching that has endeared Bright Eyes to now generations of the emo at heart. The album is a busy mind brimming with ideas, a continuation of Oberst’s recent renaissance that was jumpstarted by last year’s outstanding collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers as Better Oblivion Community Center. Down in the Weeds even features found-sound interludes and portentous intros that, from other bands, would be obnoxious, but from Bright Eyes are an endearing part of the experience.
Bright Eyes records have always had a paranoid, apocalyptic streak; this one is no different. It is—as Oberst sings on “One and Done” in his trademark nervous warble—”the final field recording from the loud anthropocene.” 2020 is a year where the free-floating anxiety and doom feels prophetic and justified. “Down in the Weeds” rises to meet it, vindicated, but wishing, for all our sakes, that maybe it wasn’t. Thankfully, it also has the heart to try to see us through. | Mike Rengel