After a nine-year-long hiatus, Bright Eyes has returned. Here’s we think of their long-awaited material.
The Omaha-based Indie-Folk legends, Bright Eyes are back with their ninth studio album, and Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was is as sad as ever. Despite never officially breaking up, they parted ways for a while to let the band members explore other projects, most notably Nate Walcott’s scoring of the adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars, and frontman Conor Oberst joining Phoebe Bridgers on 2019’s Better Oblivion Community Center. The band has come back with a record that draws from the best of their past and adds to it in interesting and dynamic ways. Using contrasting themes of small and large troubles, Oberst’s lyricism has not dulled with time.
As is the standard for their albums, it begins with a skit – “Pageturners Rag”. At once both tongue-in-cheek and devastatingly sad, as the conversation between Oberst’s mother and ex-wife about his dead brother’s house is contrasted with a Joplin-esque ragtime tune. This sets up one of the key emotional beats of the album, the untimely death of Oberst’s brother. The following two tracks are standard Bright Eyes fare, deeply sad songs wrapped in a catchy tune. The country rock and pedal steel guitar of “Dance and Sing” and the upbeat drum patterns of “Just Once In The World” mask the existential questions about the natures of relationships and the world very well.
Next, “Mariana Trench” shifts from the small scale of the previous tracks with worries of an impending apocalypse. Warnings of stock market crashes and earthquakes, money trails, and wiretaps seem more prescient than ever, considering the state of the world, and yet the melody is not one of despair, saving that for the following track. “One and Done” takes us to the world after all this happens, putting the global problems of “Mariana Trench” in a deeply personal light. The instrumental starts similarly but grows to an intense denouement.
“Pan and Broom” is relaxing after the chaos of the last leg, the sparse production (and yes, “Hotline Bling” drum machine beats) and simple lyrics still weave a compelling story, while giving the listener room to breathe after the existential fear pervading the last two cuts. The trumpet and harpsichord in the following “Stairwell Song” provide a baroque quality to the song that contrasts nicely with “Pan and Broom”, and the lyrics feel very sadly personal, even for Oberst. As the lover in the song likes, the ending of the song is cinematic; the lush instrumental is fun, if short-lived.
“Persona Non Grata” is the low point of the album, with solid songwriting ruined by strange instrumental choices, and “Tilt-a-Whirl” is similarly forgettable. Thankfully, “Hot Car in the Sun” is Bright Eyes at their most bittersweet, and anyone with depression can instantly recognize the feelings the song speaks to. The pain of “walking around … talking out loud” is a familiar one, the listener can feel the weight that even basic actions have on him. Waking up is a struggle for Conor here, and the mundane and simple instrumental puts us in that mental state.
The last leg of the album is marginally happier, but maybe because it’s hard to be sadder than “Hot Car”; “Forced Convalescence” is the first time Oberst and co. really address how much different the band is now than in their heyday. It talks about the struggles of realizing one’s age, and how much faster life seems to go at 40, emphasized by a tale from Oberst’s childhood. He talks about how all he wanted was for life to speed up, being stuck in bed with a broken leg. He has his wish now, and all he wants now is for it to go slower.
“To Death’s Heart (in Three Parts)” is possibly the most impressive feat on the album, as it splits a five-and-a-half-minute song into three vignettes, each with their own distinct tone and story. They aren’t detailed but a strength of Oberst’s writing has always been his ability to recognize pertinent details and let the listener fill in the gaps. “Calais to Dover” is catchy fun with arena rock-inspired guitar in memory of their late touring manager/guitarist Simon Wring, and “Comet Song” is a fantastic closer. Showing off Oberst’s ability to play with emotions, talking about an obviously struggling relationship and his hope for his child in the same breath leaves us with a sense of hope. This imbues the album with a more intense emotional impact, more bittersweet than crushingly depressed.
Filled with diverse styles and interesting instrumentals, stellar songwriting, and strong themes tying the record together, Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was shows that getting this band back together was most assuredly a success.
Listen to the album below!