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

Bright Eyes are theatrical. For about 25 years the emo-folk outfit have revelled in outspoken melodrama and gloomy grandiosity. Impossibly young wunderkind frontman Conor Oberst was hailed as a new Dylan and became a face of a scene; an emo personality.

Released: 21 August 2020
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

Their first album in nine years comes after a tumultuous decade for Oberst which included divorce, the death of his brother, cancer scares and a false assault accusation.

Down In The Weeds is, then, a suitably dour record that offers few rays of hope, but when they do shine through they’re nothing short of miraculous. It’s also their nicest sounding work in over a decade - thespian and stagey arrangements that suit the dramatic subject matter.

Pick apart any of its 14 tracks and you’ll find elaborate blends of strings, keys, choirs and orchestral melodies blended by Oberst’s bandmates Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott into something newly accomplished yet also reminiscent of the band’s heyday. Rare is the record which plucks old musical ideas from the artist’s back catalogue but reworks them into something not only justified but progressive. Hindsight can be propellant, can illuminate the marshy path in front of an ageing band. By holding the past up and turning it around in your hands, you might just find perspective. In this case, Bright Eyes have emerged from their cave assured.

But the trio have always been musically accomplished and well-studied, and technical proficiency doesn’t answer the question: why are they back? The album seems to ask itself this question.

Lyrically, Oberst is eulogising – take the bagpipes in the exquisite dirge ‘Persona Non Grata’. He’s experienced a lifetime of being seen as a cultural symbol – the expectations and the devoted fans contrasted with the lonely hotel rooms.

It seems as if being larger-than-life has ironically made him acutely aware of death. His “phantom brother”, a dog dying in an overheated Chevrolet, his ageing mother. In ‘To Deaths Heart (In Three Parts)’ he looks into the titular void and imagines the “bodies in the Bataclan” from the tragic 2015 Paris attacks. In ‘Tilt-A-Whirl’ he muses we “can’t unhear Beethoven’s Fifth” over a glorious guitar melody and what I’m told is a marxophone. Popular legend would have it that the aforementioned symphony represents “fate knocking at your door” - I doubt I’ll need to connect that dot for you.

How to breathe amidst all this decay? On ‘Stairwell Song’ Oberst finds refuge in happier memories of him and his late brother: “And I’m back with you in Benson, sitting on that rotting porch, where we only drank the good stuff we could afford”, he dreams. And yet in the same song he admits to being trapped inside his bedroom, “planning out his last resort”. He’s gasped about these thoughts for decades, but now, at the age of 40 he seems to find a sunbeam of calm in existentialism: all the world’s a stage and the curtain falls for all of us.