Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was: Bright Eyes on the Arduous Aftermath of Loss

Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was: Bright Eyes on the Arduous Aftermath of Loss

After a record long hiatus, Bright Eyes have re-emerged from the woodwork with nearly a decade’s worth of material on Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was.

After an unprecedented hiatus, we’re ecstatic to say that Bright Eyes are back. Nine years stand between today’s release and the three-piece’s 2011 The People’s Key LP, originally slated to be their last record. The fourteen-track Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was was forged in the fires of calamity following frontman Conor Oberst’s divorce and loss of his brother. It’s the sonic embodiment of pacing through the ashy ruins of your old reality, picking up whatever bruised relics you can find and making do with the rest. Yet, it lacks the dismalness and malaise Bright Eyes has always been so prone to, and even celebrated for surrendering to. Oberst’s vocals carry the same quality of vulnerability – tremulous lyrics threatening to crumble at any moment into a thousand pieces. But moments of acceptance-induced optimism salvage total renouncement in what appears to be a willingness of Bright Eyes to cast off many of the characteristic elements of their previous sonography. What remains is a patchwork of expertly coalescing instrumental textures of warped electronics and classic Americana acoustics, with the addition of experimental manipulations. This project is one of the most eclectic we’ve seen out of Bright Eyes thus far.

The record opens with “Pageturners Rag”, a bizarre take on early twentieth century ragtime. It’s overlaid by Spanish spoken word by Oberst’s ex-wife Corina Figueroa Escamilla and, in a separate departure, the mushroom-induced exchanges between Oberst and his mother (I did say “bizarre”, yes?). What follows is the most explicit outline of theme we’ll see on this record with “Dance and Sing”: opening with the hard hitting resolution, “Got to keep on going like it ain’t the end” and culminating in the refrain, “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 completely lacks any dejection but instead details resolute acceptance in its place – even cautioning (“Please, don’t resuscitate / Make an example out of me”). That’s not to say that this record glosses over the desolation that comes with losing a family member and a partner– not even close. “Tilt-A-Whirl” opens with the hauntingly overt line, “My phantom brother came to me” while “Stairwell Song” is a gut-wrenching direct address to Oberst’s ex-wife. Its lack of animosity is what makes it so affecting – it’s like a love song written in retrospect, knowing all that you know.

“You were kind, existential and refined
Always something on your mind
Even then, our love was not in question
Nothing changed, you just packed your things one day
Didn’t bother to explain what happened
You like cinematic endings” 

We take an even deeper dive into the “emo” elements of the Bright Eyes genre on “Hot Car in the Sun”, both through the literal image of a dog trapped in a car and its symbolism of dejection. Bleak recounts of the unending stupor following a breakup cast dark shadows on daily mundanities: “Chopped the celery and made the soup / Didn’t have much else to do / I was dreaming of my ex-wife’s face”. That final line hits hard – a reality explained in the simplest terms when you’re too emotionally exhausted to put it any other way. The sole moments where any life is felt are the refraining “I love you’s”, further emphasizing their unabashed honesty.  

“Calais to Dover” is easily an album highlight. Oberst’s choral lamentations are almost indistinguishable between pleading and accepting accountability. The track in its entirety is a perpetual swelling to this larger than life eruption of sound and emotion, and there’s nothing more on-brand to Bright Eyes. In stark contrast, this is followed by a thoughtful recount of the failure of the relationship that in many ways inspired Down in the Weeds. With “Comet Song”, Oberst speaks matter-of-factly, stifling any semblance of emotion until the final moments of the track. Lines reminiscing on the simpler moments (“We reminisce on innocence then plunge into the sea”) juxtapose the incredibly intimate images of the moments where it all fell apart (“You clenched your fist and threw the dish and called me Peter Pan”) and finally the aftermath (“Vacuumed up all the fairy dust / Held Savasana on the floor / Just felt like dying when you thought of us / You clapped your hands and hoped for an encore”).

Down in the Weeds may mark a valiant return to music for Bright Eyes, or Conor Oberst’s victory lap before returning his gaze back to solo and collaborative work (don’t miss Better Oblivion Community Center, Oberst’s 2019 collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers). Either way, this album has been a formidable reminder of what there is to love about Bright Eyes for any Y2K indie rock nostalgist. Incredible lyricism, heavy electronic manipulation, and masterful instrumental layering blend Down in the Weeds seamlessly with the rest of Bright Eyes’s discography while still being distinctly its own; from the festival-ready melodies of “Mariana Trench” to the experimental instrumental ventures of “Pan and Broom” and “Persona Non Grata” (bagpipes on an indie record? We’re here for it). In an almost unintelligible outro, we hear the uttered words, “How much do you love me, man? / I do not talk about that / I think I will turn the microphone off” beneath layers of blown-old distortion.  Oberst has said all there is that needs to be said, at least for now.

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