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Premature Evaluation: Bright Eyes Down In The Weeds Where The World Once Was

When you never stop singing about the apocalypse, you’re never wrong. We always feel like the world is about to blink out of existence. One day, we’ll be right. The end of days has been a lyrical concern for Conor Oberst for years. Oberst started putting his doomy, overwrought poetry to music as a teenager, and he never gave it up. There were times, over the years, when Oberst almost came off as a childish figure, a self-obsessed miserabilist in love with his own despair. But when that despair rears its head on Down In The Weeds Where The World Once Was, it feels like an old friend popping by to see what’s up.

In the almost-decade since Bright Eyes released the sci-fi-addled LP The People’s Key, Conor Oberst has suffered some great losses. His brother has died. His marriage has ended. He’s turned 40 — a traumatic event when you make your living plumbing the depths of your teenage soul again and again, for decades. (Believe me, I fucking know.) Oberst has also made some great music in the past few years — on his own, with Desaparecidos, with Better Oblivion Community Center. On some of that music, he’s even sounded like the grown-up that he is. But Down In The Weeds is not an adult Conor Oberst record. It’s definitively a Bright Eyes album, with all the teeth-gnashing drama that the name implies.

Oberst had the idea to reactivate Bright Eyes while at a Christmas party with multi-instrumentalist Nathaniel Walcott. Together, they immediately went into a bathroom and jumped on a FaceTime call with Mike Mogis, the other longtime member of the band. Mogis agreed straight away. All three members of Bright Eyes had been through grown-man shit since the last time they’d made music together, and they’ve talked about how they wanted to recapture the raw, youthful immediacy of the early Bright Eyes records. They’ve done it, and they’ve done it on a grand scale.

Down In The Weeds sounds huge. There are strings and horns and woodwinds and choirs. Flea shows up to play busy, churning basslines on a bunch of songs. (Walcott is a touring member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.) Jon Theodore, from the Mars Volta and Queens Of The Stone Age, plays some colossally clattering drums. It’s all so majestic and produced that it can sometimes sound exhausting. Bright Eyes have used this army of musicians to make music that won’t fade into the background. Down In The Weeds is not a polite album. Instead, it’s a dramatic, overloaded, vaguely histrionic one — in a good way, mostly.

On “Stairwell Song,” Oberst howls a phrase that could be an accusation or a lament or just an observation: “You like cinematic endings.” Then the strings and horns and woodwinds swell up, and the track becomes its own cinematic ending. That’s a classic self-aware Bright Eyes moment — not a joke, exactly, but a way to pierce all that grandeur without skimping on the grandeur itself. Elsewhere, Oberst sings the phrase “this world went down in flames and manmade caves, an island of lepers” over the “Hotline Bling” beat. Or, more accurately, Oberst sings it over a primitive drum-machine bossa nova beat — the same preset that Timmy Thomas used on the stressed-out 1972 R&B hit “Why Can’t We Live Together,” which Drake producer Nineteen85 later sampled on “Hotline Bling.” On Bright Eyes’ “Pan And Broom,” as on “Why Can’t We Live Together” and “Hotline Bling” before it, that drum pattern signifies some kind of squirming internal tension. But on “Pan And Broom,” it registers a bit differently, because it’s the fucking “Hotline Bling” beat. The question, now as ever, is this: Is Conor Oberst serious?

The answer: Yes. I think. Mostly. All through Down In The Weeds, Oberst sings everything in the same wracked quaver that he’s used on every Bright Eyes record for more than two decades now. He goes over the top with his imagery again and again, just like he always does: “Left your innocence there in Tiananmen Square.” He goes back to old Bright Eyes traditions, like the discordant opening sketch that you listen to once and skip every other time you play the record. (This time, it’s Oberst’s ex-wife speaking in Spanish until jaunty horns come in and Oberst’s mother says the phrase “we have to hold on” a few times before moving onto other conversational subjects.) But the whole time, we’re hearing a guy trying and failing to make sense of a world that hasn’t yet bothered to disprove any of his most grandiose teenage fears.

Bright Eyes recorded Down In The Weeds last year, and they announced its existence just before a global pandemic wiped away the possibility for the world tour that they’d been planning. Again and again, Oberst’s imagery turns apocalyptic: “This world is waving goodbye.” “When the big one hits, look out for the plainclothes.” “Around here, we’ve been wondering what tomorrow’s going to sing/ On the final field recording from the loud Anthropocene.” It can all seem prophetic, at least until you realize that Oberst’s imagery has always been apocalyptic.

More often than not, Oberst’s apocalypses are personal in nature. He sings about the ghost of his dead brother coming to see him. He sings about dreaming of his ex-wife’s face. He sings about “catastrophizing” his 40th birthday, realizing he’s ended up paying bills and vacuuming rugs like every other boring person. And he sings about understanding that his own personal pain is nothing, that everyone else is going through their own version of it: “It’s just painful to walk around/ It’s just painful to talk out loud/ I know this pain is not my own.”

In the many Zoom interviews that they’ve done to promote Down In The Weeds, the members of Bright Eyes have talked about how comfortable it feels to be working together again, finding their old rhythms and speaking their unspoken languages. For those of us who grew up with Bright Eyes, hearing Down In The Weeds feels just as comfortable. Bright Eyes are painting on bigger canvases these days. Back in their Saddle Creek days, the band didn’t have access to, for instance, Flea. But they’re returning to the same old pains in ways that feel familiar and soothing.

Bright Eyes aren’t new, and they’ll probably never sound new again. When Oberst teamed up with Phoebe Bridgers on the Better Oblivion Community Center album last year, there was a different energy to the whole affair. Bridgers hits a lot of the same songwriting themes that Oberst does, but she hits them in different ways. On the Better Oblivion album, Bridgers kept Oberst from crawling up his own ass. Mogis and Walcott don’t do that. Down In The Weeds isn’t an album that’s in conversation with any of today’s music — except, maybe, “Hotline Bling.” (If anything, the album is in conversation with the same old Neutral Milk Hotel records that Oberst has always been careful not to rip off too much.) But Down In The Weeds does find satisfying, rewarding ways to indulge all those old anxieties. At its best, the album can really fuck you up.

The moment that fucks me up the most arrives on “Comet Song,” the album’s final track. Oberst sketches out a scene that feels real even if it didn’t literally happen in his personal life: “You clenched your fist and threw the dish and called me Peter Pan/ Your aim’s not very accurate, and I thank God for that.” The music underneath him is a sad, bittersweet little waltz. Strings swirl sympathetically. Horns sound out quiet little triumphs. But Oberst still sounds as broken-down as he did when he was half his current age. He doesn’t have any good answers to the questions he was asking as a kid. So all he can do is imagine oblivion. “You’re approaching even as you disappear,” he wails. And then the music fades out, the conversational hum from that intro track flashes by, and everything ends.

Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was is out 8/21 on Dead Oceans.

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