A lone pair of footsteps meanders down a street in Omaha, into the neighborhood bar and then into a near-imperceptible tangle of conversations – about wars, sleepless nights – a surrealist din pushing against the sound of ragtime. Then, as the background quiets, a line rings out clearly: “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.”
Thus we enter the fitting, cacophonic introduction to Bright Eyes’ tenth studio album and first release since 2011. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is an enormous record caught in the profound in-between of grief and clarity – one arm wrestling its demons, the other gripping the hand of love, in spite of it.
The end of Bright Eyes’ unofficial hiatus came naturally. Conor Oberst pitched the idea of getting the band back together during a 2017 Christmas party at Bright Eyes bandmate Nathaniel Walcott’s Los Angeles home. The two huddled in the bathroom and called Mike Mogis, who was Christmas shopping at an Omaha mall. Mogis immediately said yes. There was no specific catalyst for the trio, aside from finding comfort amidst a decade of brutal change. Sure, Why now? is the question, but for a project whose friendship is at the core, it was simply Why not?
“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 says.
“It was just something we wanted to do for ourselves, because we were all in this stage of our lives…” Oberst trails off. “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 resulting Bright Eyes album came together unlike any other of its predecessors. Down in the Weeds is Bright Eyes’ most collaborative, stemming from only one demo and written in stints in Omaha and in bits and pieces in Walcott’s Los Angeles home. Radically altering a writing process 25 years into a project seems daunting, but Oberst said there was no trepidation: “Our history and our friendship, and my trust level with them, is so complete and deep. And I wanted it to feel as much like a three-headed monster as possible.”
Across recording sessions between Omaha’s ARC Studios, Los Angeles’s Electro-Vox, and LA’s Capitol Studios, the trio leaned into experimentation, yielding an ambitious, musically inventive LP. Aside from the surprising rhythm section made up of the fierce musicianship of Jon Theodore (Mars Volta, Queens of the Stone Age, One Day as a Lion) and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, the compositions expand the expectation of what Bright Eyes’ sound is.
“Working with these guys who I trust so much, and who I love so much – it’s a completely different and unique experience than anything else I have in my life,” Walcott says. “I’m able to, without fear, for better or for worse, bring forth my wildest and most imaginative ideas, and really know that they will be listened to.”
The dark, foggy instrumental section of “One and Done” mixes Flea’s melodic bass with orchestral string lines and strange, otherworldly drums, unrecognizable from earlier Bright Eyes work. “Mariana Trench” rattles with anxiety, its epic sprawl exploding with a forward-chugging, jazzy momentum of blaring brass. The funereal nostalgia of “Persona Non Grata” features bagpipes in its musical interlude, while the slick, near-joyous sounding fever dream of “Forced Convalescence” finds richness from a professional gospel choir: both firsts for the band. And the immediate charm of the vocal melody in “Pan and Broom” marks an understated, minor pop masterpiece.
In spite of all its newness, the LP feels like the most complete amalgamation of Bright Eyes. The symphony’s presence recalls Cassadaga, while hyper-percussive elements and effects conjure Digital Ash. The jolting intimacy of Oberst’s singular voice and its folk songwriting core are the same foundations of Lifted and I’m Wide Awake. And overblown acoustic guitar marks Mogis’ production reaching back in time to the original recordings Oberst made on a 4-track 25 years ago.
As a title, as a thesis, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was functions on a global, apocalyptic level of anxiety that looms throughout the record. But on a personal level, it speaks to rooting around in the dirt of one’s memories, trying to find the preciousness that’s overgrown and unrecognizable. For Oberst, coming back to Bright Eyes was a bit of that. A symbol of simpler times, vaguely nostalgic. And even though it wasn’t actually possible to go back to the way things were, even though there wasn’t an easy happy ending, there was a new reality left to work with.
And here, there is a bleary-eyed hopefulness – earnest, emotive recommitments to love appear on “Dance and Sing” and “Just Once in the World.” And throughout, Down in the Weeds features snippets of Oberst’s loved ones speaking, in late-night conversations. The fleeting loveliness of intimate moments punctuates the bleakness of the record’s existential crisis, crackling like lightning bugs illuminating the long night.
Down in the Weeds is a distillation of a prolific, enduring canon. It’s immediate and urgent, the product of its creators’ growth across a decade apart, as well as the need to make a record together to find solace from loss. Through deliberate, fearless experimentation in process, the trio made the truest Bright Eyes sound: the sound of a deep bond, of a band coming home, but also a seamless continuation, like Bright Eyes never went away. It’s the impossible, sprawling mess of human experience that Bright Eyes has always sought to put to tape, since the beginning – the sound of holding on. Why now? Why not?