In 2004, as I hobbled toward my frumpy 40s, I became enamored of a band that, at the time, appealed primarily to angsty teens: Bright Eyes. With his emo coiffure and “screamo” vocals, lead singer Conor Oberst was quickly becoming the pin-up for a generation of hormonal floppy-hairs.
But here’s the thing: Bright Eyes were never truly emo. Sure, Conor’s tremulous whisper could devolve into unsettling screams, but the music had a quirky, artful air, and sure, his lyrics could read like sophomoric confessionals, but they were often collaged upon surrealist and symbolist verse. In short, Bright Eyes may have unwittingly acquired elements of the emo genre, but in the end, they were far too worldly to be pigeonholed as musical poetasters.
Fast forward to 2020. After a nine-year hiatus (2011’s The People’s Key was purported to be their final offering), Bright Eyes have returned with a new album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, and Conor Oberst has turned 40. I’m in my 50s and still enamored. And yet, despite the emotional luggage that Oberst has been hauling around in the last decade (divorce, death of a sibling), and despite his staggering number of side-tangents (solo projects, collaborations, super-bands), Bright Eyes’ signature post-punk Americana has remained mostly intact. That’s thanks to the astute aptitudes of perpetual collaborators Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, of course, to Oberst himself, and his timeless talent.
Far from being a sonic digression, the new album Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, is an invigorating tour through all of Bright Eyes’ eras. There are new wave rockers ala The People’s Key; sweeping easy listening songs in the vein of Cassadaga; minimalist alt-country evoking I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning; electronica in the spirit of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn; and fragile ballads and goth-folk such as those that can be found on Lifted, Or the Story is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground and Fevers and Mirrors. The new album is a pleasing amalgam of all that makes Bright Eyes so compelling and fresh, replete with a chatty, cryptic intro, quivering vocals, heady histrionics, bold orchestral statements, idiosyncratic arrangements and instrumentation, lush female backing vocals, and nods to just about every musical style, even ragtime.
Now, to be sure, some critical detractors resent the “bombast” and self-indulgent production of Bright Eyes albums, neglecting to grasp that the crux of the Bright Eyes appeal is their willful projection of grandiose flourishes onto sophisticated musicality. Too, Conor’s quavering voice can be polarizing among critics, vacillating as his vocals do between tuneful croons and warbles that jitter on a fault line, occasionally erupting into tiny emotional earthquakes. Conor Oberst sings like a Midwestern Robert Smith, flattening the latter’s English rain-drenched moan into a dry wail birthed in the plains of Omaha.
What doesn’t seem to be in as much dispute among critics is Conor Oberst’s status as a solid songwriter. Once hailed as the second coming of Bob Dylan (around the same time that he was being touted as the emo poster boy), Obsert has a knack for constructing strong compositions embellished with potent poetry that can be anguishing, cosmic, nihilistic, ebullient, mystical — sometimes all at once. Conor bears the dichotomous distinction of being an extreme introvert who expresses himself urgently, candidly. Still, his words often read like versified diary entries and can feel claustrophobic, like inhabiting a cave inside his brain.
However, it bears noting that on Down in the Weeds, Oberst embraces existential ambivalence more confidently in his lyrics, even as they still trend toward dark ruminations. For example, in one of Bright Eyes’ best early tunes, “Attempt to Tip the Scales”, Oberst pens words of dread with only a twinge of hope. “In the dark, we’re just air / So the house might dissolve / Once we’re gone, who’s gonna care / If we were ever here at all? / So close to dying that I finally can start living.”
On the other hand, one of the best songs from Down in the Weeds, “Tilt-A-Whirl”, Oberst touches on the same topic, but with more depth and maturity. “My phantom brother came to me / His backlit face was hard to see / I couldn’t move, I couldn’t scream / You can’t un-hear Beethoven’s Fifth / This human heart’s an aggregate / Competing feelings so disparate.” On “Dance and Sing”, Oberst sounds resigned, but in a zenfully attuned kind of way. “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… and sing.”
The entire album is a, dare we say, middle-aged meditation on love and loss — and how more love can heal the continual loss. Oberst has never sounded so world-weary and yet so full of heart. On “Just Once in the World”, he sings, “Let’s stroll to the edge of the cliff / Stop here and give me a kiss / Now we’re walking on air / There’s no hell beneath our feet.”
On “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)”, he laments, “Limbs, they hang like chandeliers from alcohol and age / Down in the weeds again, tough to explain / Mattress soaked in gasoline makes iridescent flames; I lay down.” And on album centerpiece, “Marianna Trench”, Oberst emotes, “Look long at that Stonehenge / Look quick is it something you missed / Look into the that smoldering building’s bombed-out fog / Until it finally lifts.”
Bright Eyes inhabit a perfect musical paradox, exhibiting an approach that’s raw and sloppy, elegant, and elegiac. Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.