Nine years after what was deemed a final album for Conor Oberst’s signature moniker, Bright Eyes return with their tenth studio album in the midst of a year well suited to the Nebraska scribe’s brand of melodrama and misery. It feels like the legacy of Oberst and Bright Eyes has shifted immensely over the past decade – where once the former prince of emo was viewed as the musical equivalent of marmite, recent years have seen critics retrospectively review Oberst’s work in a new light as a result of the forty-year-old’s immeasurable influence on the current crop of indie-folk singer-songwriters.
Now we find ourselves listening to a generation raised on the raw, unfiltered emotion of Fevers & Mirrors and Lifted…, and as such, artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Matty Healy credit the influence of Oberst on themselves and their contemporaries, lending credence to the mythology of Oberst as a kind of 21st century Dylan, a comparison that was first heavily touted back in 2005 upon the release of arguably the band’s defining work I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.
And so Bright Eyes return with a weight of expectation in 2020, not as a solo Oberst project but with multi-instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, long time collaborators and permanent members of the group since 2006’s Cassadaga. That album was a watershed moment for the band, as the painfully confessional, angst-ridden songwriting of Oberst’s youth morphed into a more mature, universal brand of poetry, with Oberst directing the lens away from himself, onto the wider world and into the night sky, delving into the kind of philosophical and existentialist themes that were developed further on 2011’s The People’s Key, and continue to be explored with Down in the Weeds.
In fact, Down in the Weeds feels very much like a continuation of those records, bearing many of the same characteristics, mostly for the better – the epic, sweeping theatricality of Walcott and Mogis’ arrangements are retained with style, and Oberst loses none of the stargazing wonder he so effortlessly transmits in his always elegant prose as he ponders universal truths and human nature while tying in some personal reflections on growing older, moving on from divorce and finding his station in life.
In some ways this is a darker affair than both of its predecessors which is to be expected in the current climate – the general atmosphere of Down in the Weeds is one of a dive bar at the end of the world, a setting vividly conveyed in ‘Pageturner’s Rag’, the album’s opening sound collage which takes the form of a fever dream monologue delivered in Spanish by Oberst’s ex-wife as she introduces the band on stage. It all sounds somewhat sinister but the fact that this was in recorded in Oberst’s very own Pageturner’s Lounge in Omaha as a tribute to the bar’s traditional ragtime performances gives the opener some retrospective warmth, and so it goes with the album itself.
You would be forgiven for thinking that a Bright Eyes album in 2020 of all years would be a profoundly bleak listening experience, but the fact is that, despite confronting some apocalyptic themes, Down in the Weeds is an unmistakably optimistic album, a shining light in the face of darkness, which is all the more timely and poignant given the current state of affairs.
Mariana Trench weighs up our relative insignificance in the context of nature and Earth while also teaching us a humbling lesson about living through modern times. It’s an uplifting highlight alongside the gentle combo of keyboard and drum machine on the comforting waves of Pan and Broom as well as the album’s standout moment and centerpiece Stairwell Song, a triumphant orchestral arrangement which lives up to its self professed ”cinematic ending” as Walcott lets his trumpet rip on a superb climax before lead single Persona Non Grata brings listeners back down to earth on a sorrowful, searching piano ballad that marks perhaps Oberst’s most personal song on the record alongside the gorgeously understated Forced Convalescence.
The aforementioned make for a very strong midsection, although it would be fair to say either end of Down in the Weeds doesn’t quite have the same impact. The folky twang of Dance and Sing and the tender, bare acoustic of Just Once in the World are perfectly lovely if not especially memorable opening notes, and Comet Song does a nice job of closing the thematic loop of the record with its musings on rebirth and rejuvenation set to a shimmering, waltzy backdrop while never quite managing to stand out on its own. These are harmlessly pleasant notes to open and close the record, but slightly underwhelming considering Oberst’s gift for theatrical beginnings and endings – At the Bottom of Everything, Let’s Not Shit Ourselves or Road to Joy, these are not.
Still, Down in the Weeds overall manages to be as epic and grandiose as one would hope Bright Eyes would sound today. Mogis and Walcott make their now considerable presences felt on the band’s tenth outing with their consistently evolving instrumentation on full display across a variety of beautifully arranged symphonies throughout these fourteen tracks, and Oberst has lost none of his lyrical prowess as he artfully navigates the treacherous waters of 2020 with a refreshingly positive outlook on humankind. On an eloquent return, Bright Eyes are as refined and wise as they’ve ever been, delivering a strangely sweet, apocalyptic yet life-affirming soundtrack for modern times.
Words: Andrew Lambert
Best Tracks: Mariana Trench/Stairwell Song/Forced Convalescence
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