In the time since Bright Eyes’ last album, 2011’s The People’s Key, Conor Oberst has released six albums with three different projects. It’s quite a rate, but it’s one that he’s maintained since he put out his first cassettes as a teenager in the 90s. You’d have to think at some point he’d just run out of words or inspiration, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem for him, he’s an unending font of lyrics – it’s just the impact and meaning of them that seems to be waning somewhat.
When Bright Eyes were at their peak – around the turn of the century – Oberst’s words would express his dissonance with the world around with a poetic accuracy that resonated through his generation. Whether he was dealing with existential angst, heartbreak, politics or just observations of people, there was an undeniable vitality to his cris de cœur. Now just past his 40th birthday, it’s understandably harder for him to reach the same levels of urgency, but when you reach the end of the 14-track, 55-minute Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, you’d be hard pressed to remember one quotable phrase – something that was once Bright Eyes’ calling card, as their lines littered MSN Messenger statuses, AIM away messages and MySpace pages.
It’s not that Oberst’s words are no longer interesting, there’s plenty to admire in the way he still manages to conjure images, but it all just feels a bit meaningless. “I read God is dead, I shed some tears for him / But I swear on his grave I’ll never do it again,” he sings early on the album’s first proper song “Dance and Sing”, seemingly taking a swipe at Christianity, but who can be sure? It’s certainly not as deadly or direct as the anti-religious invective he deployed on 2007’s “Four Winds”. Following song “Just Once in the World” begins with the lines “Found the through-line for all humankind / If given the time they’ll blow up or walk on the moon” – on first scan it sounds witty, but any scrutiny once again reveals an emptiness. Ironically, later in the same song he describes a “cathedral of words / the meaning’s not easy to tell,” which is a perfect summation of his own writing on Down in the Weeds.
It’s not as though these are just a couple of carefully-chosen examples, you could close your eyes and randomly point at any line on the lyric sheet – and this is one wordy album – and you’d land on something equally hollow. Oberst could never be accused of writing in platitudes, but his lines on this album often have the same bemusing effect. Where once he would put us in place on a city street observing people from a personal perspective, this time around he seems to have taken up a viewpoint that’s somewhere up in the clouds, trying to sum up humanity in its totality, resulting in plenty of sweeping generalisations – even if they do sound kinda pretty.
The musical elements guided by Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott support this macro approach with a busy canvas – every iota of sonic space is used up on Down in the Weeds, making it by far Bright Eyes’ grandest sounding album to date, with a bevy of strings loaded into almost every song. There’s no doubt that they are a very talented producer and arranger, but at times Mogis and Walcott’s work suffers a similar fate to Oberst’s words – the instrumentals sound gorgeous but are so pristinely produced and packed into the songs that they meld into one homogenous loveliness that’s lacking an edge.
“Just Once in the World” again provides a perfect example, as Bright Eyes invite 40 additional musicians to play violins, violas, timpani, oboe, trumpet, trombone – pretty much every other instrument you can think of – in the song’s triumphant crescendo, as Oberst yelps about there being “only love.” It’s the kind of moment that most bands would save for the end of their hour-long album, but here Bright Eyes are doing it at the start, setting us up for a record that’s wall-to-wall sound. It gets a little exhausting.
Calling in Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea (who plays on seven songs) and Mars Volta drummer Jon Theodore was a wise choice, as they keep things anchored while Bright Eyes’ instrumental flights of fancy swash all over the place. With this core band in place, there are some moments where it all comes together to create grand platforms that make Oberst’s histrionic proclamations connect – on a surface level, at least.
A rumbling and chugging undercarriage on “Mariana Trench” ensures the masses of sound don’t coagulate, and adds heft to Oberst’s apocalyptic visions. Dramatic bagpipes woven through “Persona Non Grata” add a dastardly tone to this menacing character study. Mogis’ hammered dulcimer gives a luminous tint that makes the pop-rocking “Tilt-A-Whirl” really fly as Oberst asserts that “life’s a game of solitaire.” Intertwining violins and trumpet on “Comet Song” counteract Oberst’s wailing about a “little infant in a plastic box shedding incubator tears” to close out the album with a romantic swoon. Perhaps the best of all is “One and Done”, where the orchestra is once again in place and really soaring, providing a symphonic escape in the middle and a cacophonous, almost operatic finale.
Conversely, when they strip back the layers to rely on Oberst’s words, the songs suffer. This is most evident on the minimalist “Pan and Broom” and the folky “Hot Car In The Sun”, both of which are eminently forgettable and could easily have been excised from this over-stuffed record.
One advantage that the trio had coming into this “reunion” album (although they maintain that they never broke up) is that across their discography they had never settled on one particular style, so there were no expectations of what Bright Eyes in 2020 might be. Down in the Weeds maintains that ambiguity, and in the process manages to avoid the trap many bands fall into of trying to resurrect their glory years. Cynics might say they wrote an album this ‘big’ with one eye on the arenas and festival headline slots they were due to play, and while it’s true that they’ve abandoned the intimacy that made albums like Lifted and Fevers and Mirrors perfect places for outcasts to escape, you could never say they were putting out this album as some kind of cash grab. What comes reverberating out of Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is Bright Eyes’ deep desire to create beautiful and ambitious music, which they’ve certainly done – even if the results aren’t as essential as what’s come before.