Music Reviews
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

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

(Dead Oceans) Rating - 6/10

The almost decade-long absence of a Bright Eyes album felt like frontman Conor Oberst's conscious attempt at showing that he had much more to prove than his much-celebrated project. And who could blame him—once deemed as an indie-rock wunderkind destined to become the next Bob Dylan, the Omaha native had to confront all the unwanted praise (or end up bemoaning his past as Quiz Kid Donnie Smith did in Paul Thomas Anderson's LA-based ensemble pic Magnolia). After 2001's The People's Key, Oberst, who went through some personal challenges and health issues during that time, released three solo albums and regrouped with his political punk side-project Desaparecidos without much fanfare.

Despite all that, Oberst is quick to cast aside any "return-to-form" narrative by asserting that their latest studio LP is a truly collaborative effort (with core members Nate Walcott and producer Mike Mogis back in the fold). In typical fashion, the album's title, Down the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, reads like a wordy, drawn-out musing that's often associated with their early 2000's output. Even more so is the album's enigmatic introduction, Pageturner's Rag, which features ambient background chatter, a ragtime piece that turns mellow, and a fictitious band introduction by his ex-wife Corina Figueroa-Escamilla. It's an apt reintroduction that's playfully on-brand for Bright Eyes; a moment for listeners to reflect before Oberst's anxiety-filled concerns take up all the attention.

Oberst usually gets personal on his albums, but there's a noticeable affectation to his writing that sometimes makes it hard to connect. Down in the Weeds splits it right in the middle: some moments let us in with vivid detail, while others cater to more common frustrations. On Dance and Sing, he basks in the beauty of love while also accepting that its demise can feel monumental. While on Stairwell Song, he crafts a quiet, yet heartbreaking portrait of domestic life. Whether or not they relate to his marriage is anyone's guess; he's good at keeping things at a distance while making us consider our own lives.

Whereas on Mariana Trench, Oberst engages in less intimate discussions—using the age-old metaphor of how insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things. It's also one of his more immediate singles, where clamorous percussion and a Bob Seger-like guitar chug sit against an odd mixture of symphonic bombast. And as for heady, lyrical introspection, there's To Death's Heart (In Three Parts), where he makes up choruses over non-English words like "ephemeral" and "exhausting" to show different phases of marital love (both the good and the bad). Granted, Oberst has been long enough at it to pull off this kind of mental exercise—and he's at his most direct regardless—but it also feels off-putting and doesn't add much to the song's beautiful cosmic sadness (think Grandaddy).

Musically, Oberst hasn't tried to make a Bright Eyes album as opulent since 2017's his country-folk retreat Cassadaga—and it shows. That's where Mogis and Walcott come in—and various appearances by Red Hot Chili Peppers' Flea—who all add orchestral flourishes and bass notes to songs like One and Done and Forced Convalescence. But if you strip out the song's grandiose arrangements, they still would work as intimate acoustic lamentations straight out of Lifted or I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning—which makes one think if the accompaniments, though lush, feel superfluous. Oberst keeps things lean and muscular at different points, like on Tilt-a-Whirl, where he adds just a touch of synths over bracing folk-rock. And instead of letting the album drag, he does save some of its best songs right at the very end with Calais to Dover and Comet Song—the former one of his most compelling and impassioned performances before it transitions into the latter's fitting theatrical conclusion.

Though Bright Eyes' reunion is a cause of celebration, Down in the Weeds is at odds with itself—where the band balances music that is ambitious in scope with some of Oberst's most nakedly personal work. But just like his complicated and sometimes narcissistic persona, there's a good argument to make about how his over-the-top approach perfectly suits him. That aside, Oberst and his cohorts' generous offering does take them on new, unexplored territory while remaining true to his wry prose. And when all is said done, he's surprisingly positive considering the difficult circumstances that came his way.