Bright Eyes – Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was – Album Review

Omaha, Nebraska trio Bright Eyes were a 2000’s keystone of emo, indie and the space between. Chances are if you ever fashioned yourself a fringe, or had a banging MySpace page, you know all too well what purpose a record like I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning serves. They had the tools, and could’ve easily adapted to a world leaving that scene behind, and yet 2011 LP The People’s Key was to be the last hoorah.

Post split, frontman Conor Oberst tried his hand at everything. Punk, folk, duet records, solo stuff… you name it; he had a go for a year or so. Impressively, he found continued success, and the versatility practised in the early years shone through. Skip over this time frame if you dare, and in 2020, the band are back together.

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I mean, why wouldn’t they be? Who better to sit down and assess this cavalcade of chaos? What I wonder is: with every avenue explored in the last 9 years… what even identifies a Bright Eyes record anymore? If you experiment with every project, what’s the point in having multiple? I’ll reserve judgement a while and we’ll get into it.

‘Pageturners Rag’ is a collection of fragmented dialogues. Ex-wife Nancy Oberst welcomes us down the long hall through the door to memory lane… in Spanish, of course. Some things never change, eh? Self-serving, odd, uncaring… meant to deter the ‘casual’ listener. I do hope, that being said, I’m not in line for the nostalgia ride.

So much has been said in the hype cycle for this album (which in itself, is strange for the group) of the band’s vision of an “apocalypse” jumping out, and a cinematic bow-out like ‘Dance and Sing’s second half are bread and butter for that idea. Powerless to bring about change, the reunited unit suggest you just “dance on through” and at this point, it can’t hurt to try.

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‘Mariana Trench’ is the beautiful child of previous records The People’s Key and Cassadaga. A rich arrangement props up Oberst’s prayer to cultivate hope and truck on regardless of grand-scheme insignificance. The choppy horns that define the last third of the track bounce around the nutshell lyric of “Look hard for a harder something to sacrifice / that’s what it takes”.

‘Pan and Broom’ could’ve shown up on Better Oblivion Community Center and I wouldn’t have made a fuss (unfortunately, there’s no Phoebe here). This is a summer fling with new wave, and the airy pops of the drum machine are a welcomed switch-up to the ‘doomy’ pace. Lead single ‘Persona Non Grata’ is a collage of washed-out images. In West Village, NY, as in Tiananmen Square, something, or rather someone, does not belong. The bagpipes (courtesy of Omaha Pipes and Drums) in the song’s refrain serve as a sonic form of pathetic fallacy, maybe erasing our protagonists’ shape for good.

‘Tilt A Whirl’ ends as soon and as suddenly as the life it sings of. As Conor finds himself haunted by images of his late brother, and watches his ageing mother arm herself against gravity, he ponders how quickly it all comes to dust. A powerful track in its brevity. ‘Hot Car in the Sun’ sounds like it was named by a Bright Eyes generator. I didn’t expect it to also then be sung by that same generator. Another short track, except that I’m perfectly fine only getting this amount here.

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The banality between life’s peaks is combatted on ‘Forced Convalescence’, and by Conor’s own measure we’re in the thick of it now. Describing the album’s title to NPR, he was quoted as saying: “If you get ‘down in the weeds,’ you’re paying too much attention to the little details. But I think that all those little details, that’s actually what makes up life.”. John Lennon be damned, a name for it at last.

The ‘movements’ of ‘To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)’ attempt to make mantras in situations where fear is faced head on: “There’s nothing left, no more to tear apart/ Agonies are infinite and sympathies just aren’t; they run out”. A zeitgeist-capturing lyric if I’ve come across one. ‘Calais to Dover’ is regretful, but defiantly not to the point of wallowing. Conor understands his mistakes; the very seconds in which things went wrong sometimes, and here he recalls these moments in which things could have been different, but sadly enough now that nothing can be done, were not.

People are harsh on comeback records. By the time anybody makes one, the name of the band or artist has a specific connotation for the listener that’s gone unchanged however long. This is a steep hill for a lot of projects, because what’s the move? Churn out another album that sounds the same as your old stuff to appease those likely to actually buy it? Do you just make what you want, and hope to shake the long unchallenged view of your project as a certain style or sound? A lot of acts never figure out the climb; it seems they’re doomed to exist in a certain moment only.. .one that’s passed them by. Weirdly, this Bright Eyes record took the mixed route and pulled it off.

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I mentioned the previous albums I hear amongst the details of Down in the Weeds… but I’m not convinced they’re actively trying to invoke that content. I took my time to vivisect this release as parts and whole, and can honestly report there’s no coasting on the catalogue, no ‘please remember us, we’re the guys that do this!’ whilst totally ignoring the time elapsed (e.g Blink 182, who reaaaally need to shut up about girls and partying now that they’re dads) and standing above everything, a bag of fresh and complete ideas.

I’m still unsure about the overarching identity of the band’s music, but it would appear that all a Bright Eyes album needs to do is open up its chest for me to enjoy it. I can think of few things I’ve enjoyed more this year, actually. In saying this, there are still a couple of songs I think are extraneous. If you’re a fan, this is essential listenin. If you’re not, you will be soon.

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