BRIGHT EYES – ” Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was ” Best Albums Of 2020

Posted: August 22, 2020 in ALBUMS, MUSIC
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Down in the Weeds

Sometimes it feels like you hear a Bright Eyes song with your whole body. From Conor Oberst’s early recordings in an Omaha basement in 1995 all the way up to 2020, Bright Eyes’ music tries to unravel the impossible tangles of dissent: personal and political, external and internal. It’s a study of the beauty in unsteadiness in all its forms – in a voice, beliefs, love, identity, and what fills up the spaces in-between. And in so many ways, it’s just about searching for a way through. When Bright Eyes announced their first new album since 2011, the media excitedly reported on the band’s reconciliation. But, in reality, Bright Eyes never really broke up. They wandered in different directions, sure, but there were no hard feelings. Gathering to record Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was was a matter of good timing and schedules aligning. Frontman Conor Oberst suggested the idea for a new record at bandmate Nathaniel Walcott’s Christmas party in 2017, and the pair called the third member of their trio Mike Mogis from the bathroom to pitch the idea.

The year 2020 is full of significant anniversaries for Bright Eyes. Fevers and Mirrors was released 20 years ago this May, while Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning both turned 15 years old in January. The latter, a singer-songwriter tour-de-force released amidst the Bush presidency and Iraq war, wades through incisive anti-war rhetoric and micro, intimate calamities. On the title track and throughout the record, Oberst sings about body counts in the newspaper, televised wars, the bottomless pit of American greed, struggling to understand the world alongside one’s own turmoil. In its own way, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning carved out its place in the canon of great anti-war albums by being both present and prophetic, its urgency enduring 15 years later.

In 2011 the release of The People’s Key, Bright Eyes’ ninth and most recent album, ushered in an unofficial hiatus for the beloved project. In the time since, the work of the band’s core members – Oberst, multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, and multi-instrumentalist Nathaniel Walcott – has remained omnipresent, through both the members’ original work and collaboration.

In recent years, Mogis produced records for beloved folk acts First Aid Kit and Joseph, among others, as well as mixed the fine-spun ennui of Phoebe Bridgers’ breakthrough 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps. Mogis and bandmate Walcott also teamed up to write the original scores for The Fault in Our Stars, Stuck in Love, and Lovely Still, and Walcott worked as a solo composer scoring number of independent feature-length films. Walcott spent extensive time on collaboration; in addition to his arrangement work for Mavis Staples, First Aid Kit, and M. Ward, he contributed studio work to artists ranging from U2 to jazz guitarist Jeff Parker, and also toured heavily as a member of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Oberst, who’s nearly 30 years into a prolific musical career, spent the last decade in similarly productive fashion. Across three years he released a string of solo albums: Salutations (2017), Ruminations (2016), and Upside Down Mountain (2014), as well as guested on records by First Aid Kit, Phoebe Bridgers, and Alt-J. His punk band, Desaparecidos, emerged from a 13-year hiatus in 2015 with the thunderous sophomore LP, Payola, a white-knuckled disarray of hollered political fury. And at the top of 2019, Oberst and Bridgers debuted their new band, Better Oblivion Community Center, digitally dropping the critically-lauded eponymous debut LP alongside a surprise performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

The heart at Bright Eyes’ songwriting still looms culturally, in films and TV shows and through re-imaginings by other artists. Mac Miller covered both Lua and First Day of My Life; Lorde’s version of the penultimate The People’s Key track, the funereal-waltz Ladder Song, was a focal point of The Hunger Games’ soundtrack; The Killers covered Four Winds for their Spaceman EP; and Lil Peep’s Worlds Away samples Something Vague while Young Thug’s Me Or Us samples First Day of My Life.

Bright Eyes’ expansive catalogue has traversed genre, sound, and countless players; unpolished demos or fuzzy folk, electrified rock or country twang. The sharp song writing and musicianship is all anchored in Bright Eyes’ singular ability to flip deep intimacy into something universal. For so many, for so long, listening to Bright Eyes has been like hearing yourself in someone else’s song – a moment of understanding or illumination, knowing you’re on the same team looking for a way to move through of all this shit.

And while 2020 is a year of milestones for the band, it’s also the year Bright Eyes returns, newly signed to indie label Dead Oceans. Amidst the current overwhelming uncertainty and upheaval of global and personal worlds, Oberst, Mogis, and Walcott reunited under the moniker as both an escape from, and a confrontation of, trying times. Getting the band back together felt right, and necessary, and the friendship at the core of the band has been a long time pillar of Bright Eyes’ output. For Bright Eyes, this long-awaited re-emergence feels like coming home.

They certainly did some of their best work on Down In The Weeds The album sounds undeniably like a Bright Eyes record, but it ebbs and flows with new anxieties and darknesses. Fans will delight in a true-to-style Bright Eyes record, but, at the same time, any music fan will be able to appreciate the gruesome grandeur of this folk-rock mastery.

Bright Eyes’s Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was feels less like a monumental happening and more like a seamless continuation, the sound of a band shrugging off a long hiatus and simply getting back to work. They’re still making deeply emotional indie rock songs, still flirting with the same grandiosity that helped cement the legacies of albums like Lifted and Fevers and Mirrors, and the songs still revolve around Conor Oberst’s warbling search for the reasons we insist on continuing to exist when the world quite frankly seems to be crumbling all around us. No matter how much time has passed, Bright Eyes continues to be unmatched at tackling the biggest questions with a profound, heart-wrenching intimacy.

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