Bright Eyes: Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was (Dead Oceans) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020  

Bright Eyes

Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

Dead Oceans

Aug 20, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Conor Oberst first pitched the idea of reuniting Bright Eyes at multi-instrumentalist Nathaniel Walcott’s 2017 Christmas party. The response was an instant yes, and both, unwilling to wait any longer, huddled in the bathroom to bring Mike Mogis, the band’s other longtime member, back into the fold. Although the band members have remained in contact, nine years ago it seemed there was never going to be another Bright Eyes album. 2011’s The People’s Key was billed as Conor Oberst and company’s final album under the name. Of course, new albums from retired legacy acts are not uncommon, even among indie legends from the 2000s such as LCD Soundsystem. Too often though, when bands reunite the results seem to be a matter of obligation or nostalgic excess. Yet in the case of Bright Eyes, the decision came naturally, as a return to a comforting setting and close creative partners. 

The intervening years had been far from easy for Oberst, as he was faced with the death of his brother and separation from his wife. In a decade filled with both personal and political strife, the chance to return to the familiar world of the Bright Eyes name was an easy choice for all involved. The resulting album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is thankfully far from a cynical cash grab. Bright Eyes construct an expression of that same surrounding strife, defined by an apocalyptic scale as the band reflects on loss, grief, and a nascent sense of hope. 

In many ways, Down in the Weeds represents a continuation of ideas that Bright Eyes has toyed with for years. The orchestral flourishes that tinge tracks such as “Dance and Sing,” “One and Done,” and “Stairwell Song” have a cinematic feel to them that would fit well on Cassadaga. Meanwhile, the electronic percussion on “Pan and Broom” recall Digital Ash In a Digital Urn. The band deploys these familiar sounds with the assuredness and deft touch that comes with years of experience, while expanding the sound of the record with gospel choirs and even funeral bagpipes, giving it an epic sense of scale. Unexpected moments such as the jazz inflected trumpets on “Comet Song” or the arena rock guitar solo on “Calais to Dover” also bring some unexpected flavor that one wouldn’t necessarily expect from a Bright Eyes record. 

The result is perhaps less cohesive than I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning or Fevers and Mirrors and does miss some of the raw aspects of Bright Eyes’ early work. But it also gains from a greater sense of age, world weariness, and wisdom that the band brings after a decade away from the Bright Eyes name. On “Mariana Trench,” perhaps the only obviously political cut on the record, Oberst makes reference to crashing markets and crumbling interstates amidst encroaching “dehumanizing entities” and an “ever-widening money trail.” Yet, despite looming destruction, he sounds less bitter than driven, imploring the listener “Look hard for a harder something to sacrifice/That’s what it takes.” The song is also bolstered by a discordant brass breakdown and a truly fantastic rhythm section courtesy of Flea and Queens of the Stone Age’s Jon Theodore. 

Although the specter of collapse undeniably colors the album, the thrust of Oberst’s writing on the record is, as always, bracingly personal. At times, it is in service of climactic instrumental moments as on “Stairwell Song” when he sings, “Nothing changed/You just packed your things one day/Didn’t bother to explain/What happened/You like cinematic endings.” The brass, woodwinds, and strings then swell bringing the song to a stirring end, itself mirroring the lyrics’ cinematic ending. Much of the album fits into this dramatic mold, foregrounding Oberst’s stories of personal and political apocalypse. 

Elsewhere, the band rightfully pulls back and allows Oberst’s reflections to stand solitary and stark as on “Hot Car In the Sun.” Accompanied only by plaintive piano and the distant boom of percussion, Oberst reflects on the monotonous aftermath of separation, singing “Chopped the celery and made the soup/Didn’t have much else to do/I was dreaming of my ex-wife’s face/It’s just painful to walk around/It’s just painful to talk out loud/I know this pain is not my own.” Though the band works to draw out the aching drama of Oberst’s lyrics amidst the scale of the album’s dramatic instrumental performances, his cracked, trembling, vocals often work best in these unadorned settings. 

As the album searches for meaning among grief and loss, notes of optimism and conviction shine through, showing a different side to Oberst. The opening lyrics of the album themselves call for perseverance in the face of change, concluding “Because now all I can do/Is just dance on through/And sing.” The picture of Conor Oberst one gets from Down in the Weeds, despite the album’s meditations on loss and grief, is perhaps less bitter, a more settled, even more hopeful figure. He doesn’t ascend to the same levels of histrionic angst many might associate with Bright Eyes, but Oberst is now 40, not 19 after all. To do so would feel closer to hollow theater than artistic growth. 

In many respects, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is a culmination of past Bright Eyes records, with aesthetic choices that range throughout the band’s career. The time apart seems to have served the band well, making the album feel far less rote and sterile than the group’s previous swan song. Its web of styles and instrumentation results in a record that doesn’t necessarily break new ground for the band, but instead attempts to distill a decade long career into 55 minutes. The resulting record is a comfortable return to the sounds, themes, and band members that have made Bright Eyes’ music special to a generation of listeners. Where the band goes from here is anyone’s guess, but Bright Eyes’ latest is a satisfying new addition to a storied career. (www.thisisbrighteyes.com)

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10



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