Review: Bright Eyes — Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

Categories:  The Arts    Music
Wednesday, September 9th, 2020 at 11:50 AM
Review: Bright Eyes — Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was by Teddy Rankin

As Conor Oberst turns 40 years old and his band, Bright Eyes, celebrates its 25th anniversary, he has come a long way from his early labeling as Bob Dylan heir apparent. Oberst’s songwriting is as stirring now as in Bright Eyes’ 2005 classic, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” and his commitment to evolving with the times is certainly Dylan-esque.  

The last time we heard from Bright Eyes was all the way back in 2011’s “The People’s Key,” and the band seemed to dissolve. The electronic nature of that album was jarring to those  used to the group’s acoustic and folky past. And while that record holds a special place in the hearts of true fans, it didn’t feel like a proper goodbye.  

Over the past nine years, the youth that connected so deeply with Bright Eyes’ lyrics could fill that void with Oberst’s solo projects, a collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers, and his revived punk band Desaparecidos. But the primary project returning feels like a true main course. Also, like Oberst, his original fans are now aging out of the term youth.  

“Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was,” released by independent label Dead Oceans, currently sits at No. 1 on Billboard’s Americana/Folk Albums chart. The 14-song record blends all of Bright Eyes’ past sonic experiments into a near perfect experience. There are traces of “Cassadaga” and the overt country twang, effortlessly entangled with “Digital Ash In A Digital Urn” and its poppier synth melodies. “Pan and Broom” is a great example of this mixture, tastefully blending filtered drums and organ synths. They also dabble in non-traditional instrumentations like the catchy bagpipe solo in “Persona Non Grata.”  

Although they don’t often garner much attention, the two other members of Bright Eyes, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, bring this album to life with their full and cinematic instrumentations. Meanwhile, Conor Oberst has never had the best voice, but the thing that stands out in every project he has worked on over the years is his lyrical talent. He prolifically churns out thought-provoking phrases like this passage from “Just Once in the World”: “Watched a blast from the past / Indigenous dance / Started to laugh / And then I just started to cry / This world is waving goodbye.” 

Oberst found a niche in the early 2000s writing political protest songs aimed at the U.S. involvement in overseas wars. And in 2020, he has plenty more ammunition for social commentary. In 2017, he even contributed an opinion piece to CNN, saying “Trump’s so crazy he makes me nostalgic for George W.” The album’s title track is not as on the nose as previous Bright Eyes protest songs like “When the President Talks to God.” Instead, it references current events in a nuanced and timeless way.  

It is Oberst’s ability to experiment and transform himself that truly makes him the Bob Dylan of our times. Although he may be aging, Oberst is still young at heart and this latest release may invite a new generation to see the value of thoughtful songwriting. If this time really is “goodbye” for Bright Eyes, fans can be satisfied that they reunited and ended on a high note.

Teddy Rankin is a music writer for The Spectator. He can be reached at edinboro.spectator@gmail.com.

Tags: music review

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