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After the unthinkable happens, what’s next? Usually a band break-up causes a personal crisis for everyone involved, yet when Bright Eyes disbanded in 2011, they all ostensibly continued as normal: Conor Oberst added to his already extensive discography with three solo projects, one Phoebe Bridgers collaboration and one Desaparecidos album; multi-instrumentalist Nate Walcott toured with the Chili Peppers and scored five films, while Mike Mogis continued to produce the odd album here and there. Although the band have become increasingly beloved in Emo subculture, a further Bright Eyes album in 2020 didn’t seem necessary or imminent.
Yet between 2011 and now, Oberst has had a lot of traumatic life events to process. A baseless accusation of sexual misconduct on a message board in December 2013 shook his life and his progressive fan base to its core. The nightmare only ended when, in July 2014, the accuser –after a lawsuit and many former friends calling her account into question—admitted she made it up to get attention. In 2015, a cyst on the brain required him to cancel a tour. In 2016, his 42-year-old brother died suddenly, his death partly attributed to a mix of sleep apnoea and alcoholism. Then, in 2017, his seven-year marriage to his sound engineer wife Corina Figueroa Escamilla ended.
After all these life-changing events, it’s understandable that at a Christmas party Oberst would gravitate towards his old friends and talk about making new music again; it must have seemed like the easiest thing in the world.
The result of this reunion is Bright Eyes’ 10th album Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, an album preoccupied with questions of “what ifs” and “what’s next”. On ‘Forced Convalescence’, the fear of questions leads a father to asks a taxi driver to drive him “out of the neighbourhood, the multiverse” to avoid having to make a choice again, while on ‘Comet Song’, wrong choices become regrets: “I’m not much of man, you held out hope, believing that at least I might pretend, vacuumed up all of the fairy dust”.
The sense of the world getting smaller as you age is there in opening sound collage of ‘Pageturners Rag’, where the warm sound of ragtime music and convivial chat drop away to elongated piano notes and magic mushroom-assisted conversations. These chats are then whooshed away like dust in the wind, leaving just solitary piano notes playing into a silent void. It’s a void that hangs in the air for a few moments before it is broken by the sound of cruel, canned laughter; as if the world is punishing us for the choices we make.
This album could easily have become self-centred, but Oberst is too mindful a songwriter to fall into such a solipsistic trap, or to believe art is more important than life itself. On ‘Pan and Broom’, he turns the sentiment of Dylan Thomas‘s poem “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” on it’s head, smirking that “if it’s not all that important, then why make a fuss at all, just whistle a tune” over shrill, cheap sounding keyboards.
‘Calais to Dover’ neatly mocks the notion that artists suffering for their art is a noble pursuit, with Oberst self-diagnosing himself with Munchausen syndrome—a condition where the patient pretends to be sick to get attention. The song takes this tragicomedy premise to its hilarious conclusion by writing a chorus in the most attention seeking style of rock that ever existed–80’s arena-rock. The climatic guitar solo from Mogis is a fantastic punchline.
This sense of fun is notably absent from ‘Tilt-A-Whirl’ and ‘Hot Car in the Sun’; two tracks which throwback to the stripped-back production of Bright Eyes’ earlier albums Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted… The former track’s raw depiction of grief just about papers over some queasy Emo clichés about “life being a solitary song”, while the latter track is disturbingly ambiguous about whether its manipulative language is addressed to his ex-wife or the listener: “Maybe you’re the same, maybe you’re afraid too, I love you, I am you”. Following from the clearly autobiographical ‘Tilt-A-Whirl’, its sonic similarities make its depiction of a character on the brink of suicide more harrowing. While neither track is just nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake, these tracks are outliers on an otherwise symphonically rich album, where Walcott channels the avant-garde rhythms of Stravinsky into his thunderous arrangements, and Mogis’s production blends Bright Eyes mopey brand of Indie with vivid funk and dub effects.
‘Dance and Sing’ eases the album in properly with Bright Eyes’ familiar country-folk sound, and Oberst chewing the words and shrieking them back out. Rather than overwhelm the listener with new sounds, Mogis gently pries open the barn doors by muting the waltzing violins and adding some radio crackle to the choir. The beats of ‘Just Once in the World’ seem slightly more off-kilter than usual, but all seems normal until the slap bass drops on ‘Mariana Trench’.
The funk is brought courtesy of Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea and Queens of the Stone Age drummer Jon Theodore, both of whom add fluidity to the album: Flea’s gentle rolling bass on the aforementioned track laps beneath the synths as Theodore’s discreet polyrhythms gently nudge the song along. In contrast, on ‘One and Done’, their strolling, casual rhythms provide a delightfully awkward tension with the chaste piano and austere strings; rhythms that build to a pummelling hard rock climax.
It’s an album of little risks that pay huge dividends. The slow, unrushed bagpipes of ‘Persona Non Grata’ are a balm to Oberst’s urgent shrieking. The use of harpsichord on the chorus of ‘Stairwell Song’ to introduce a dream-like reverie could have been clunky in less skilled hands, but riding on the top of fluttering drums and strings, it sounds suitably divine. The sci-fi inflected sounds of a Omnichord solo sweetens the heartache of ‘To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)’, the grace of the instrument matching that of Oberst’s wife who criticises him “in her most gentle way”.
It’s a grace the best moments of Down in the Weeds… has in spades. It’s an album about difficult home truths, rather than one-sided vitriol, which makes it more than just the new Blood on the Tracks to soundtrack your next break up. It’s a reminder to scream for what you have lost but keep dancing anyway, because there is always another tune to whistle.