Bright Eyes: Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

After taking the 2010s off, Bright Eyes have regrouped and released a new album. To fans of indie music’s ‘00s heyday, that sentence is likely very tantalizing, though the rest of us should be excused for wondering what all the excitement is about. Nine years, after all, is a very long time in the music industry (their last album, The People’s Key, was released in 2011 to mixed reviews).

Though Bright Eyes’ records lean heavily into melancholy and anxiety, the good news about Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is that it not only stands tall beside their back catalogue, the album is a great starting point for indie fans who never quite caught on to the band.
The group has had rotating lineups throughout the years, but is driven by Omaha-born singer and guitarist Conor Oberst, who first started using the name Bright Eyes in 1995. Current indie heads will recognize him from his 2019 collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers, Better Oblivion Community Center. Oberst, with bandmates Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, is joined on the new record by bassist Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers, Atoms for Peace) and drummer Jon Theodore (The Mars Volta, Queens of the Stone Age).

Down in the Weeds is every bit a journey, though not the type many are willing to take. The album begins with a fairly happy bar scene (“Pageturners Rag”), with glasses clinking and people laughing, though the mood quickly spirals towards psychedelia as a ragtime piano begins playing something more ominous. Voices fade to echoes then reappear as if nothing happened, accompanied by the whooshing sound of crashing cymbals played in reverse. The journey from here is an autobiographical trip into depression, inspired by Conor Oberst’s divorce and the death of his brother.

If you haven’t listened to Bright Eyes before, the first few tracks should test whether you can stand Oberst’s voice. While he certainly doesn’t sound as whiny as on some early albums, there is always pressure behind his singing, as if he has to strain to get the words out. This strain would come across as whiny or angsty on a younger artist, but here it sounds genuine, even adding a bit of natural vibrato not unlike Eddie Vedder.

The songs are lush with arrangement. The basic sounds across the album are plinky piano, tremolo guitar, acoustic strumming, and deep bass, and these are surrounded by echoes, strings, and choir as the music finds peaks and valleys. Mid-album standout “Persona Non Grata” has some very cool celtic sounds which I guessed were a digital effect until I found three bagpipe players credited in the liner notes.

“Mariana Trench” marks the narrative descent to Oberst’s deepest darkest moods, yet is the closest thing the album delivers to a banger. It’s an upbeat track with a polysynth and drum machine. Combine that with themes of hopelessness against climate change and Big Brother and the song is halfway into Arcade Fire territory. “Mariana Trench” is followed by “One and Done,” which keeps the atmosphere going with a little groovy bass and some cool delay-tinged percussion.

The third quarter of the album stays really low, longer than you’d expect. Oberst examines the full spectrum of tragedy, beginning with anger and denial, wallowing in hopelessness and depression, and even touching on thoughts of suicide. It’s tough to enjoy music which dips so low, but it’s certainly well done and very impactful as art.

After all this, I was actually surprised at how hopeful and upbeat the final four songs turned out to be. On repeat listens, this section stands out, with several catchy hooks and even a few guitar solos. Beginning with “Forced Convalescence,” where Oberst sings “the Seroquel’s working, it’s fighting my fantasies,” the antidepressants start to kick in, and we’re treated to a tune which is part Beatles and part Flaming Lips.

You wouldn’t guess it from the title, but “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)” is another fun track. It again has an Arcade Fire-like sound, with atmospheric pad synths and a female voice echoing Oberst’s vocals. This is also the first appearance of a guitar solo on the album, and after all that time in the trenches the climax feels great. “Calais to Dover” takes it a step further with two guitar solos sitting somewhere between Slash and Brian May in tone and style, if not length.

When it’s all over, “…the Super 8 keeps flickering with choppy memories,” but Oberst seems happy to live with that. It’s a lesson in how to appreciate those we’ve loved and lost, and, as we’re returned to the noisey bar with the crashing glasses, you realize that journey is worth taking every time.

Recommended If You Like: The National, Wilco, Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie
Recommended Tracks: 8 (Persona Non Grata), 5 (One and Done), 12 (To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)), 4 (Mariana Trench)
Do Not Play: 12 (To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts))
Written by Rob Barron on 08/26/2020