Album Review: Bright Eyes – Down In the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

After a nine-year hiatus, Bright Eyes has resurrected, and their tenth studio album, Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was is a modern epic. Vast, sprawling, and ridden with anxiety, the record follows the contours of an existential breakdown, vacillating between depression and mania, nihilism and idealism, self-loathing and forgiveness.

So why now after nine years of absence? Well, there wasn’t any specific catalyst that got the group back together, other than a shared desire to seek solace through music. Oberst pitched the idea to get the band back together at a Christmas party at Nathaniel Walcott’s home in 2017. The two huddled in the bathroom and called up Mike Mogis, who immediately said yes to the offer. And the rest is history: Bright Eyes is officially back in the game, and they’re offering the commiseration we need.

It just feels like over the course of the last 10 years since we made a record, we’ve all been doing our own things – and as satisfying as a lot of those things have been, for me there’s a part of my identity as a guitar player, a pedal steel player, a member of this band that has sort of disappeared, and I missed it,” Mogis notes.

It was just something we wanted to do for ourselves…” Oberst adds. “Between kids being born and people dying and divorces and people falling in love and all of the crazy amount of life that’s transpired for the three of us, personally… It was just like, what are we going to do? Let’s do the thing we do best. Let’s make a record.”

The album opens – in classic Bright Eyes fashion – with a vignette. Indistinct chatter wafts through a bar in Omaha. The cabaret host introduces the night’s ragtime reel: “Your Most Vivid Nightmares!” Applause swells, and we overhear snippets of conversations (taken from a mushroom trip Oberst had with his mother and his ex-wife): “I think about how much people need – what they need right now is to feel like there’s something to look forward to. We have to hold on. We have to hold on.”

This idea of “holding on” pulses throughout the album. Plunging into the pits of grief and anxiety, there is a lifeline that resurfaces every once in a while: the belief that despite how awful life can be, it’s all we’ve got. So we might as well keep on living, and find something to live for. In one of the most heart wrenching songs on the album, “Stairwell Song,” Oberst overhears laughter reverberating through a stairwell: “They’re talking about the weekend / All the plans that they have made / Said it’s just nice to have something  / To anticipate.”

Lyrically speaking, Oberst has truly outdone himself this time. Intellectually expansive and poetic, his meticulously crafted verses capture the human condition through unexpected details. Revisiting the loss of his brother, he compares life to “a game of solitaire / Amusement rides at county fairs / The Tilt-A-Whirl of our despair.” On episodes of depressive monotony, he accounts “Forced convalescence and bed rest / Staring contest / With the ceiling and my feet.” With a heartbreaking matter-of-factness, Oberst looks back on his life, digging through the rubble of memories, and meditates on loss, regret, and forgiveness.

Instrumentally, Down In the Weeds is dazzling. Complete with a full orchestra, the whine of pedal steel, and the familiar intimacy of Oberst’s nasal croak, the record harkens back to the earlier days of Bright Eyes, while also creating a new kind of cacophonous – yet monumental – soundscape that fits eerily with the times.

Apocalyptic and intimate, hallucinogenic and prophetic, Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was creates a world evocative of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” where existential dread looms beneath every word, and joy arrives in stimulant-fuelled fits – in the words of Oberst, “A self-induced seizure like a kid at a rave / Smeared in Day-Glo paint.” Moments of hope are rare, but pertinent. Standing on the brink of the edge of the world, Oberst cries out with triumphant vulnerability: “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.”

It may have taken nine years, but Down In The Weeds was well worth the wait.

Gemma Laurence

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