By Alex Szeptycki
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is a natural next step forward for Bright Eyes, evolving while remaining true to their core identity.
When Omaha-based band Bright Eyes announced their return after an unofficial nine-year hiatus, there was more than a little puzzlement. Where would the band take their deeply personal, ornate brand of emo rock? In the music industry, a near decade is an eternity. Some bands have returned unrecognizable after so long a silence. Not so for Bright Eyes: the troupe’s comeback album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, begins right where the band left off. They’ve updated their sound, embracing more expansive and layered instrumentals but, for the most part, Bright Eyes are back and they haven’t missed a beat.
Down in the Weeds, like so many Bright Eyes records, begins with an introduction. Front man Conor Oberst’s ex-wife Corina introduces the group as ragtime keys tinkle through a chatty bar. Slowly, the piano morphs into a maudlin classical number that underpins a home-recorded discussion between Corina and Nancy, Oberst’s mother. Topics range from the death of Matt Oberst (Conor’s brother) to an unusually resilient rosebush near their house. This vivid slice of a private moment is an instantaneous signal of intent: Bright Eyes are sticking to their guns.
As the album continues, it’s clear that Bright Eyes have not strayed from their initial vision. The slow, balladic tracks revolve around Conor Oberst’s inner monologue, which is characteristically fraught. “Started to laugh/And then I just started to cry/This world is waving goodbye,” he intones on “Just Once in the World,” over languid keys and acoustic guitar. The singer’s words often carry a diary-like intimacy; hear his cries of “My phantom brother came to me/His backlit face was hard to see/I couldn’t move I couldn’t scream” on the familial ode “Tilt-A-Whirl.” Oberst’s enduring strength as a songwriter is how he reckons with his own anguish, and Down in the Weeds provides him ample opportunities to do so.
Down in the Weeds also sees Oberst begin to face outwards, gazing at a crumbling world. “Mariana Trench,” an early highlight, is downright apocalyptic. Over an ominous rising synth, Oberst finds evil everywhere he looks. “Look out for the 405 Crumbling down when the big one hits/Look out for the plainclothes, look out for what the wiretap knows.” He’s as worried about corruption and police brutality as he is about climate change–induced natural disaster. As the song crescendos, roaring guitars and trumpets accent Oberst’s fears. He doesn’t have the answers, but his words offer an engagingly morbid dirge.
The big change in Bright Eyes’ approach involves an expanded sonic palate. Band member Nate Walcott’s arrangements are deeply layered, and bolstered by the powerful contributions of a series of guest artists. Among that crowd, Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and Queens of the Stone Age drummer Jon Theodore stand out. Flea’s bass is almost ever-present, even if you can’t always hear it: he erects a solid foundation for the band to build upon. His signature slap bass even makes an appearance on “One and Done,” adding funk to a slow and menacing number. Theodore’s drumming is also a standout. Listen to the stuttering triplet fills that dominate “Persona Non Grata,” or the crashing metal groove that lends some needed edge to the closing string passage of “One and Done.” Contributions like these pop up across the record, fleshing out Bright Eyes’ sound in exciting ways.
These instrumental expansions allow Bright Eyes to branch out stylistically. New spaces are explored. “Forced Convalescence,” for example, jumps from downcast lounge singer rock to dissonant orchestral pop over the course of a single track. “Pan and Broom” doubles as the album’s most exciting experimental effort and its most conspicuous sore thumb. Oberst’s melancholic reflection meets Phil Collins-esque arena rock; the front man sings “Walk through the zoo/And I sweep up my dreams/With a pan and a broom” over reverb-drenched synths and a brittle drum machine. The tune is simultaneously exhilarating and annoying; a worthwhile, if muddled, adventure for the band.
For the most part, though, the expanded instrumental landscape pairs perfectly with Oberst’s lyricism; it grants his musings extra heft. Angsty, lovesick declarations of “You were kind, existential and refined/Always something on your mind” on “Stairwell Song” are battered by wave after wave of crescendos from the drums and keys, putting Oberst’s voice in peril. “Calais to Dover,” a reflective heartbreak rocker, stands as the best display of guitarist Mike Mogis’s talent: you’d be hard-pressed to find rock music more imperious than the incendiary solo that he unleashes in between Oberst’s chorus pleas of “Now that you’re gone/Tell me you understand my love.” Mogis’s solo proves to be the perfect accompaniment for Oberst’s downtrodden vocals.
Unfortunately, these instrumental changes can also be a double-edged sword. At times, the weightier arrangements become ponderous, and that obscures Bright Eyes’ ability to convey fragility. The treacly, piano-centered dirge of “Hot Car in the Sun,” for instance, is too dour — none of the lyrics stick emotionally. “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)” suffers from a similar fate, exacerbated by its three movement length. There is no doubt that the finale is strong — bolstered by a wandering guitar solo over ominous declarations of “Enough blood filling up this fishbowl/Keep swimming around” — but the abundance of mush undercuts the intended experience of redemption. The imbalance epitomizes where the album is at its weakest — piling on atmosphere isn’t enough to rescue a lack of substance.
Reunion records are always fraught affairs, often marred by a lack of vision, questionable commitment, and a creative anxiety heightened by the fact that years have gone by. Thankfully, Bright Eyes manages to dodge most of these artistic potholes. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is a natural next step forward for the band, which is evolving while remaining true to their core identity. Aided by wonderfully nuanced arrangements and terrific contributions from a legion of guest artists, Bright Eyes’ return leaves you wishing that they had never left.
Alex Szeptycki is a writer from Charlottesville Virginia. He recently graduated from Stanford University, Majoring in American Studies with a focus in contemporary art and pop culture. He’s currently working as a freelance writer at The Arts Fuse while navigating post grad life in a pandemic.