Favorite Track: "Mariana Trench" Least Favorite Track: "Hot Car in The Sun"
The legendary front man of Omaha’s prized indie trio, Bright Eyes, has gone through a lot since his band released their last LP. The fact that Conor Oberst is now forty almost seems unrealistic, considering the teenage emo hearthrobness that gave him a valid selling point in the first place. The last we heard from him, Mike Mogis, and Nate Walcott, was on their 2011 project; The People’s Key, which is quite easily one of the most ill-received albums in the entire Bright Eyes catalog. Whether it was due to the album's critical reception or not, it took us nearly a decade to hear from Bright Eyes again, but we finally have with their tenth studio album: Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was.
Bright Eyes take on the modern apocalypse is something I didn’t know I needed, but I clearly did. With such a lengthy hiatus in the band's output there was much to be expected of the famed indie trio. In between their last album and this one, Walcott has scored films, Mogis has produced for the likes of M. Ward and Phoebe Bridgers, and Conor was plagued with the most notorious controversy of his long career. In 2013, only two short years after his band’s last release, a woman by the name of Joanie Faircloth made a series of serious allegations, claiming that in 2003 Conor Oberst had raped her after a show when she was only sixteen. The assertion shocked the world, based on Conor’s long history of activism. Six months after the initial allegations the supposed victim released a series of lengthy statements detailing how she had made up the entire ordeal for attention. “The statements I made and repeated online and elsewhere over the past six months accusing Conor Oberst of raping me are 100 percent false. I made up those lies about him to get attention while I was going through a difficult period in my life”. She killed the false allegations, but took Oberst's $200,000 record deal, his credibility, and his mental state with them. He covers this period of his life heavily on his dark, and devastating 2016 album: Ruminations. Surprisingly however, this new project asserts a very different emotional tone.
If there is one thing that I noted about Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was almost instantaneously, it’s how different Oberst sounded on a lyrical front. He no longer gives off the vibrations of the alcoholic twenty five year old that wrote “Lua” and “Landlocked Blues”, instead Conor seems better, happier, and like at last, he has found the happiness that he deserves. The opening line on Down in The Weeds, Where the World Once Was, sees Connor exploring this when he writes “Gotta keep on going like it ain’t the end, gotta change your life like it’s depending on it”. I couldn’t help but notice the euphoric smile creeping upon my lips when I first internalized those lines. It’s ironic in a sense, that we see a recovery in Conor’s life during the midst of a period marked with such civil unrest, conflict, hatred, and depression. I can’t say I’m surprised though, Conor Oberst has never been one for conformity.
No track explores Conor’s new found peace better than the album’s final single: “Mariana Trench”. I’ve never scoffed at the comparisons between Conor Oberst and the great Bob Dylan, in fact I don’t disagree in many regards. It may be my internalized Bright Eyes bias speaking, but “Mariana Trench” is poetic and I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between Dylan’s and Oberst’s writing styles on this track in particular. “It takes a lot of gall to try and please these dehumanizing entities, I befriended all my enemies. They had my back against the wall”, bellows Oberst in his classic whiny vibrato. I assume this is commentary on how it’s easy to lose sight of yourself while trying to please your fans as a musician, a concept so simple, yet so expertly and beautifully articulated by Conor. “I'm sick of it, I’ve had enough and now I’m ready for the war”, Oberst yells like a battle call against his demons of depression and alcoholism. I could write an entire review just about this track, it serves as a testament to the grandiosity of this album.
“Mariana Trench” is just one example in an album that’s almost entirely filled with cuts that feel like epics. Much of this vibrant and extravagant instrumental palette can be credited to the contributions made by the hall of fame type rhythm section that Bright Eyes recruited to play on this LP. Almost all of the drumming here is handled by Jon Theodore, of Queens of the Stone Age fame, while the majority of the bass lines are laid down by Red Hot Chili Peppers own Flea. The latter of the two connections was orchestrated by Nate Walcott, as he has toured with Red Hot Chili Peppers since 2016. Speaking of “orchestrated”, the bountiful orchestral sections all over this project are a vital part of what makes it’s sound so immense, and gigantic. My favorite comes in the form of the bagpipe led solo, on the confessional; “Persona Non Grata”, a clear highlight for me. It serves as my second favorite of the four singles released in promotion for this album, next to “Mariana Trench”. I understand that it’s the band's first LP in nearly a decade, and they needed as many ears as they could get, but I do wish they would have treaded a little more lightly when it came to this album’s singles. Although the two that I haven’t mentioned, “One and Done” and “Forced Convalescence”, both are absolutely essential to the album's flow, and huge highlights, I wish at least one of these gems was left as a surprise for me to experience upon first listen. I admit that having too many good singles is a minor and seldom-dread problem to have with an album, but I rest my case.
I’d say this album could most easily be compared to something like their twang-inspired Cassadega, nonetheless it sounds entirely unique. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, is a refreshing and familiar, yet updated take, on the original Bright Eyes sound. As of 2020 all three members of this legendary trio have entered their forties, yet they sound as innovative as ever. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was can easily stand its ground with the classic records that familiarized us with Oberst and company, yet I don’t think it intends to. The one thing that has remained consistent throughout Bright Eyes hiatus and Conor Oberst’s musical career besides his lonely and sad existence, is his love of this art form. Oberst never stopped releasing music and it doesn’t look like he will for a very long time. Perhaps Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, is his first conscious acknowledgement that the remedy he needed was within him the whole time: music.