“We are starting over,” Conor Oberst declared on the final track of Bright Eyes’ divisive 2011 album, The People’s Key. Almost a decade later, the indie rock trio – also featuring Nate Walcott and Mike Mogis – is back with a new LP, and its de facto opener, ‘Dance and Sing’, begins with the lines: “Gotta keep going like it ain’t the end.” It serves as a kind of thesis statement for the album; a record as ambitious and emotionally engaging as any, but also one that seems to be in constant flux: oscillating between wholehearted optimism and casual despair, personal woes and societal collapse, intimate songwriting and grand, sweeping arrangements. In short, it’s quintessential Bright Eyes.
As indicated by its somewhat melodramatic title, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is an album largely about change. In the years between Bright Eyes’ last album and this, Oberst experienced different kinds of loss: he got married and went through a divorce – his ex-wife, Corina Figueroa Escamilla, is the one delivering the introductory Spanish language monologue on the album’s hallucinogenic ragtime opener – and lost his older brother, Matt. The impact of these events are explored throughout the album, but they’re often set against a larger backdrop of apocalyptic doom – similar to how Oberst’s collaborator Phoebe Bridgers framed her latest effort. As Bright Eyes albums often tend to do, Oberst frequently zooms out to look at the bigger picture, turning passing thoughts into potent observations about the weird and often cruel ways the world works.
But part of what makes Down in the Weeds such a fascinating listen is the way Oberst seems unable to settle on any particular worldview, instead marvelling at life’s many contradictions. One moment “Life’s a solitary song”; the next “Life is easy/ Hula hooping round the sun”. On ‘To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)’, he concludes that “All that’s constant is that change”; later on the record, he echoes a sentiment from one of his recent solo recordings and proclaims that “Nothing is changing/ To state the obvious”. On one song he describes screaming at the absurd realization that he has good news, and on the next he laments: “If it ever occurred/ Just once in the world/ A love as absurd as ours/ I would scream what we lost/ From the mountaintop.”
To exactly no one’s surprise, the album is filled with such heart-wrenching moments. As insightful as the commentary on tracks like the bracing ‘Mariana Trench’ can get, the record’s most memorable songs also happen to be those that are the most simple in their earnestness. ‘Tilt-a-Whirl’ opens with the striking “My phantom brother came to me” before offering such uncomplicated truths as “Life’s a lonely love affair/ Kaleidoscope beyond compare”, while the downbeat ‘Stairwell Song’ cuts through with its vivid picture of a heartbreaking scene: “Nothing changed, you just packed your things one day/ Didn’t bother to explain what happened/ You like cinematic endings.”
But as profoundly melancholic as Down in the Weeds can be, it’s also bizarrely one of Bright Eyes’ most musically buoyant records. There are some stripped-back moments, sure, but for the most part, Oberst and company lean into their propensity for cinematic orchestral arrangements, enriching songs like ‘Dance and Sing’ and ‘One and Done’ with lush strings that have the effect of enhancing rather than stifling the emotionality at their core. Accompanied on many tracks by the tasteful bass playing of Flea and the momentous drumming of Queens of the Stone Age’s Jon Theodore, the album’s sonic palette often veers closer to 80s-inspired arena rock than the brand of emo folk the band are known for – to the point where you could easily imagine someone like Brandon Flowers singing atop the rousing cadence of ‘Stairwell Song’.
It’s a good fit for the hefty subject matter of the record, but Bright Eyes never wring out their ideas to the extent that it becomes predictable. Case in point: when someone tells you a Bright Eyes song includes the line “This world went down in flames and manmade caves”, you wouldn’t necessarily expect the instrumental to be driven by a bare-bones drum machine that makes it seem like the only thing that survived the fire was Drake’s ‘Hotline Bling’ – and yet that’s exactly what they’ve done on ‘Pan and Broom’. It’s these small eccentricities that prove Oberst’s wry sense of humour is anything but lost, and that makes the big moments hit all that much harder.
Down in the Weeds might be a somewhat fragmented record, but in its effort to balance out the highs and lows of life, it comes out not defeated, but defiant: the musical equivalent of dancing as the world burns, delivered with enough nuance and self-awareness to avoid vapid sentimentality. It all comes full circle with the closing ballad, ‘Comet’, but nothing resonates quite as loudly as this verse from ‘Dance and Sing’: “I’ll grieve what I have lost/ Forgive the firing squad/ How imperfect life can be/ Now all I can do is just dance on through.” It didn’t have to, and yet, Bright Eyes’ first album in nine years leaves you with more than a little bit of hope to hold onto.