Epic, honest and earthy indie rock
Conor Oberst’s ascension has taken a while. This isn’t to say its anything less than completely deserved; it’s just definitely worth noting just how long he’s been exorcizing his demons through a wide variety of musical projects. As of fall 2020, he’s released eight studio albums, has participated in around eight other bands (at least two of which are still active) and has featured on plenty of other great artists’ work. Critical adulation has followed him wherever he goes for the majority of his career, and the first Bright Eyes album in almost ten years is unlikely to put an end to this. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is a return to form for frontman Oberst (electric guitarist), drummer Mike Mogis and multi-instrumentalist Nathaniel Walcott, proving the effectiveness of Oberst’s many years of development, refinement and perfecting.
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was starts with a concept-heavy and high-energy set of three tracks. The bar time confessionals of “Pageturner’s Rag” kick things off, before the honesty, self-deprecation and general roughness of “Dance and Sing” and “Just Once in the World” point towards where the album is headed. Track four, “Mariana Trench,” feels more focused, straightforward and reserved; it’s meant more for the Mountain Goats fans than for the Arcade Fire fans.
“One and Done” is another slow, longing and regretful cut, with Oberst starting to work in some level of desperation lyrically. The chorus and “Oh my god/ baby, oh my god” are especially affecting. Oberst really knows how to work that little vocal tremble. The album’s instrumental tendencies are starting to expand way beyond what most people would expect from a genre that is often so stripped back. These proclivities for the vast and cinematic often result in incredible climaxes (much like on this track). “Pan and Broom” is a memorable one. It exudes a deep love and passion, and continues to work on refining the more volatile energy of the first few tracks.
“Stairwell Song” and “Persona Non Grata,” where Oberst is being the most open with his wounds, are an interesting halfway point for the album. These are two of the slower cuts, but they’re still incredibly exciting. The pounding drums that underly much of “Stairwell Song” and the horns that Walcott works in are amazingly cathartic. Oberst’s lyrics continue to impress, with chunks like, “In the end, couldn’t tell what you pretended/ Always wild with your sly renegade smile/ Perfectly disheveled style/ What a waste, I regret it to this day,” exposing his regrets. The bagpipes on “Persona Non Grata” also further the already impressive level of instrumental diversity on Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was.
“Tilt-A-Whirl” into “Hot Car in the Sun” is definitely the project’s weakest couple of tracks. While neither track is really “bad” per say, both fail to break new ground. For the most part, these two just feel like rehashes of the first half’s most deliberate and gradually unwinding moments. It’s obviously understandable that there would be some overlap in style from track to track on an album this impressive, and while a thorough look at a more limited stylistic commitment can also be extremely rewarding, here, it just detracts from the power of the better tracks and the album’s overall tightness.
Oberst’s rebuilding begins on “Forced Convalescence,” where he surrenders to the vastness of one’s potential and future. “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)” then guides the listener towards Down in the Weeds’ final gasps, by way of this album highlight’s nearly unabashed despair. Mogis’s guitar solo leadup to this track’s catharsis (and other guitar solo) is one of the more hopeful and memorable moments. Finally, “Calais to Dover” and “Comet Song” conclude the project with a sense of both the weight of one’s personal failures, and Bright Eyes’ obsession with their new version of large-scale Arcade Fire indie rock folksiness. The wondrous horns and string backing on the final track deliver finality, along with the last thirty seconds of ghostly gibberish.
Bright Eyes’ ability to incorporate such satisfying pushes, pulls and cathartic climaxes all throughout their music makes for always exciting first listens and consistent replay value. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is 100 percent worth consuming in an attentive front-to-back listen. Fans of the crossover hits á la Of Monsters and Men will be right at home, those with a preference for less explosiveness with absolutely still be rewarded and those with an ear for Okkervil River’s down-to-earth storytelling and instrumentation will definitely walk away satisfied. It’s cliche, but there really is something here for every sort of indie rock fan.