The rapture is coming, and Bright Eyes are ascending (Flea is also there.)
Label: Dead Oceans
It’s been a while since we’ve had any new Bright Eyes, although Conor Oberst has been going strong with other projects. We all thought 2011’s The People’s Key was the end. Steeped in speculation and spirituality, it concluded nearly 15 years of music with a new-found peace. I remember thinking, awww. No more Bright Eyes. Heartbreaking, but it means he’s not sad anymore. A happy ending.
Since then, Oberst has endured false sexual assault allegations, the death of his older brother, and a divorce. And just like that, Bright Eyes is back with new record Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was.
It seems sadistic to harvest someone’s sadness for consumable content. But Oberst puts his emotions under a magnifying glass willingly and with honesty. The record dances at the intersection between anguish and acceptance; Oberst is still the warbling voice of a self-doubting generation, but more refined and more dynamic – a reflection of the tumultuous road he has travelled.
If intro track ‘Pageturners Rag’ plays us in as we take our seats, ‘Dance and Sing’ pulls open the red curtain to reveal a floating cinema of noise. Emotional moments erupt into a deluge of chaos, beautiful and raw. Nate Walcott’s string arrangements, bass from Red Hot Chilli’s Flea, drumming from QOTSA’s Jon Theodore and a chorus of angels ebb and flow through the record, soundtracking depictions of loss and letting go.
‘Mariana Trench’ is the standout track for me. Dealing with capitalism, grief and the end of the world, it’s a truly giant song both in theme and musicality. The triumphant, vital melody is punctuated with sharp, irony-steeped lyrics: ‘I befriended all my enemies / They had my back, against the wall’. The imagery is visceral. From the wide-shot of Everest, Stonehenge and crumbling highways, we swoop down into an extreme close-up; a cowboy leaving rehab, Oberst looking down at his brother’s grave. No one else can capture the widely expansive and the intimately personal quite like Bright Eyes.
‘Stairwell Song’ is another standout as Oberst reflects on the breakdown of his marriage. ‘You like cinematic endings,’ he sings, as we’re hit with a devastating and euphoric wave of horn and strings. Classic self-deprecating wit paired with elaborate instrumentation is what elevates the record; almost like The Divine Comedy, but with a raw, breaking heart behind it.
Moments of intertextuality make this a rich listen for long-time fans of the band. From lyrical cues such as ‘A string of happy accidents’ in ‘Mariana Trench’, (referencing the Bright Eyes – Neva Dinova collab) to the high harmony in ‘To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)’ which bears stylistic similarities to Cassadaga (2006). Here Oberst ruminates on lost love and brings the apocalypse into our world with a heart-wrenching reference to the ‘two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl’ from Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’: “Enough blood to fill up this fish bowl/ keep swimming round the exits blocked, there’s nowhere to go“. A beautiful, devastating depiction of isolation. It’s just the gut-punch you’d want from a Bright Eyes song.
Down in the Weeds is signature Bright Eyes. Both prophetic and introspective, the record shows a growth in sound but proves that they can still express pain and acceptance in a way many of us find difficult to articulate. In moments of darkness when you’re too numb to feel anything, they feel everything for you. I just hope we get another album before the world ends.
Words by Ellen Mcnally