For much of his career, Conor Oberst, the de-facto leader of Bright Eyes, has been labeled everything from the new Dylan, to indie rock’s boy genius, to that “sad emo guy who I listened to in high school.” But what these reductive descriptions don’t accurately portray is the spectrum of sounds Oberst has experimented with since forming Bright Eyes with band members Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott 25 years ago. He’s only 40 years old, but his scope and range is remarkable.
The last Bright Eyes album release was 2011’s The People’s Key with Oberst and company steeped in Rasta influence while trying to figure out their place in the musical (and physical) universe. It was the end of a long run of incredible Bright Eyes albums that started with 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors. In the intervening years between releases, Oberst has released six albums as various side projects, while Mogis and Walcott have spent their time producing albums and touring with the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, respectively.
2020’s Down in The Weeds, Where The World Once Was is an album that feels like its lyrics were written sometime in the last few months. The album’s themes of isolation, collective trauma, and grappling with a world in turmoil have been explored by artists since the beginning of time, but as the world around us crumbles, Bright Eyes’ music erupts like a klaxon in the distance, warning us of what is to come. The album opens with a cacophony of spoken word and instrumentation (as nearly every Bright Eyes album has) and launches into a collection of songs that seem to have been living inside Oberst for many years. Some of Oberst’s best songwriting has come in the past nine years, and Down in the Weeds… feels like the logical culmination of all of the lyrical threads woven in each of those preceding releases.
While Oberst has stated many times over the years that not every song of his is about his personal life, the songs on this latest album seem to be most certainly autobiographical.
Like all good Oberst efforts, he sings about a break up (“Stairwell Song”), but if you’re looking to find an album full of songs about stolen glances and drug-fueled flings, you will not find them here. Oberst, like all of us in this hellish world, is dealing with a lot. Songs like, “Tilt-A-Whirl,” “Hot Car in The Sun,” and “Forced Convalescence” speak of death, Conor’s divorce, crippling anxiety, and coming to terms with getting older. But it’s not just the lyrics that make this album feel like one you could play from beginning to end on a long car ride; the soundscape of it is sprawling and oftentimes jarring. An eclectic aural journey. Not only do we have Bright Eyes members Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott to thank for that, but also the band employed Flea, (yes, that Flea) to provide some truly great bass licks. It’s a mix of lush string arrangements, ethereal synth sounds, full gospel choir, deep bass grooves, and jangly guitars.
I’ve already spent many hours driving and biking around while listening to this album, and I can’t help but think of my own city, our city, and how full of heartbreak and despair it is.
At the time of writing, there are hundreds of fires burning day and night, the air quality is increasingly poor, and the police just killed an unarmed Black man a little over a week ago. It has been hard not to connect some of these songs to the world around me. When I ride my bike along the LA River Bike Path and see one of my unhoused neighbors who lives along the banks, I think of how they are currently feeling. How would they relate to this album spinning around in my head? Who have they loved? Who have they lost? Are they as angry as I am at that the city that has failed them over and over again?
I drove to the cemetery the other day while listening to this album. I went to visit my mother and my sister and I brought a little speaker so they could listen. My sister Mely was a huge fan of Conor Oberst and we saw him in concert over 30 times. As I was walking up the hill to where they’re buried, I saw a fire burning in the distance and reflected on how surreal this moment was. I was visiting the two most important women in my life; I felt a pain in my chest, and the only words rattling in my head were, “All these same fears, year after year. All the old ones reappear. The only difference is, you’re not here.”
Through the years, Oberst’s music continues to be so important to me because of his ability to write songs about his own losses through the context of other people’s losses. It’s a talent few songwriters have. So when he sings the line “There’s bodies in the Bataclan, there’s music in the air” on the album’s most ambitious and sprawling song “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts),” you know that not only is he referring to the horrific terrorist attack from 2015, but also to the horrific tragedies, public and private, that have scarred us all. If Bright Eyes were a chart topping band, this album would be placed firmly into the zeitgeist.
Music has never existed in a vacuum. We all have albums that remind us of a certain time in our lives: Bright Eyes’s album Cassadaga will always remind me of getting out of a terrible relationship and how freeing that felt. Van Morrisson’s Astral Weeks will always remind me of walking through the streets of Paris late at night. There are albums that “saved” us and seemed like they were written specifically with our pain in mind. Nine Inch Nails’s The Downward Spiral will always remind me of the summer after my mom died, and the anger I felt at the world (cue 14-year-old Albert screaming “GOD IS DEAD AND NO ONE CARES.”) Arcade Fire’s Funeral will always mean a great deal to me because it helped me get through the last year of high school.
We find meaning in music where the artist themself may not even have intended, but that’s what makes an album like this so special: the personal associations we bring to it, even years past its release. Albums are often a document of someone’s suffering, and as listeners we apply their work to our own lives. I sure as hell already have with Down in the Weeds.
When I think back to 2011 and to The People’s Key I see who I was back then and think of everything that happened to lead up to today… “Agonies are infinite and sympathies just aren’t; they run out” hits me differently than it would have nine years ago. “Life’s a solitary song, no one to clap or sing along. It sounds so sweet and then it’s gone. So suddenly.” Is this line about Oberst’s deceased brother, or is it about one of the many people killed by police each year, bleeding out into the street, cold and alone?
It’s about whoever you’d like it to be.
The world we used to live in, the people we’ve lost, they’re not coming back (“I stood crying for what was.”) It is a difficult truth to accept, but an album like this reminds us that there is still hope. I don’t think Conor gets enough credit for just how hopeful a lot of his songs are. This album simultaneously weeps for the state of the world and is ready to burst with excitement for the road ahead, for what is possible. The earth may be dying and we may be seeing the end of an empire, but there can be a life after that. We may not be in full control of our own destinies, but what is certain is that if we work together, the chance that we can make a postitive difference increases. Our collective pain could be our undoing, or it could help pave the way for better days. Maybe it’s silly to speak so highly about a bunch of songs written by a white man, but white man or not, when I listen to this album I find myself crying for what I have lost and hopeful for what I might gain. As Oberst says in “Dance and Sing”:
“Gotta keep on going like it ain’t the end, gotta change like your life is depending on it.”
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