I had a funny thought (to me) listening to the new Bright Eyes album, their first in nine years. Since the beginning, the constant trio of Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, and Nate Walcott have been interested in taking risks in their production. They alway have weird clips of people talking and swirling mixtures of noise that seem to be completely unrelated to anything and still somehow fit perfectly into whatever song they’re putting together. As I was starting my second or third run through and I heard some of this coming through on “Pageturner’s Rag,” I had this vision of them in a recording studio like Dewey Cox when he’s in his Brian Wilson phase. “Fifty THOUSAND didgeridoos!!!”
Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was is the long-anticipated follow-up to 2011’s The People’s Key. While the reunion was first conceived a couple years ago, it could not have arrived at a better time. If ever there was a year that needed an album to reflect the pain and anger of America, it’s 2020. And, lucky us, we got it on top of the brilliant return of Fiona Apple in the Spring. Oberst and his long-time collaborators have assembled a collection of songs so full of loss and grief that it would be easy to consider it a downer. However, for every mournful note there is a glimmer of hope.
This is the first Bright Eyes record to feature that most sorrowful instrument, bag pipes. It also contains some beautiful, soaring harmonies and wonderful arrangements. Not to mention the greatest guitar solo ever performed on anything Oberst has done, be it Bright Eyes or solo (including Salutations which features Ian Felice on electric guitar). It’s clear from the very beginning of the record that these musicians have stayed busy working on their craft. It might be the best-sounding Bright Eyes record, and that’s saying a lot.
In the first song there’s a clip of a woman talking, and she says “Think about how much people need. What they need right now, to feel like there’s something to look forward to. We have to hold on.” And I think in that few seconds, Bright Eyes puts forth the thesis for this whole album.
Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was is a testament to friendship. These three friends came together at a time of particular strife, lives torn apart by death, divorce, and the ever-lingering existential dread of the Trump administration, to make music that’s new and exciting while remaining somewhat familiar. The result is an album that feels like talking with an old friend you haven’t seen in a while.
After listening a few times, I find a great reserve of spirit that was missing over the last few weeks. As this pandemic drags on, I find myself at times losing whatever small bit of faith I have that it will be over any time soon. A new Bright Eyes album may have been just what I needed to remind me to keep pushing forward.
Random thought here (let me know if you agree or think I’m crazy): “One And Done” borrows heavily from Frank Ocean’s “Pink Matter.” Flea plays bass on half of the new Bright Eyes songs, and he’s on record as being a HUGE Frank Ocean fan, so I don’t think this is beyond the realm of possibility.