Bright Eyes (photo by Danny Cohen, PR)
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was Bright Eyes
The band Bright Eyes never really broke up. They just paused for a rest — a nine-year rest. But the principle members of the group never drifted far apart, and in time, the desire to work together again brought Bright Eyes back.
Their new album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, is the result of their long awaited reunion. Singer, songwriter, and guitarist Conor Oberst started Bright Eyes in his native Omaha, Nebraska, as his previous band, Commander Venus, disintegrated. Initially, Bright Eyes was a one-man band project as reflected on the 1998 debut album, A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997. But later that same year, a second album, Letting Off The Happiness, presented Bright Eyes as a more traditional band that now featured multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis playing alongside Oberst.
In 2004, the Bright Eyes core was expanded to a three-piece band with Nathaniel Walcott joining Oberst and Mogis, along with the usually fluid group of ever-present supporting musicians. The trio debuted on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, two albums that were released simultaneously in early 2005 as Bright Eyes’ sixth and seventh albums.
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is the tenth studio album from Bright Eyes, but more importantly, it’s the band’s back-in-business sign. It comes nine years after The People’s Key, an album that for some time appeared to be the last album the band would make. But in reality Bright Eyes hadn’t called it quits, as Oberst, Mogis, and Walcott were simply off busying themselves with individual projects that fell outside of Bright Eyes’ circle.
In late 2017, the threesome decided the time had come to get the band going again. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is the most collaborative album yet from Bright Eyes. In a press release, Oberst pointed to the bond he has with Mogis and Walcott that allowed the new album to develop the way it did. “Our history and our friendship, and my trust level with them, is so complete and deep," he said, "and I wanted it to feel as much like a three-headed monster as possible.”
Walcott expanded on that thinking by explaining how he approached the making of the album and how the resulting sound came about. “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 said. "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.”
With this revitalized attitude in place, Bright Eyes have returned. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is a grand album that finds Bright Eyes moving far away from the roots-based sound heard on some of their earlier albums to something more opulent and intricate. Unique instrumentation, complex melodies, and Oberst’s rich, stream-of-consciousness lyrics make this Bright Eyes album something not only to listen to, but marvel at.
Just like the vast expanse of their new song “Mariana Trench,” this is a deep and imposing album, daunting at first, but with plenty to explore and much to discover. This is evident from the start as the album begins with “Pageturners Rag,” an aural dreamscape of random conversations drifting over the sound of a pianist playing a joyful ragtime piece which seamlessly morphs into a theme conveying a surreal sense of trepidation. But the unease doesn’t suggest there’s a gloomy trajectory ahead. Instead, it’s a merely a declaration of an impending musical journey that will encompass all emotions.
“Dance and Sing” and the melancholy “Stairwell Song” finds Oberst lamenting personal loss (Oberst's brother died and the musician separated from his wife during Bright Eyes’ hiatus). “One and Done” casts its long shadow over an odd wedding scene. Complex arrangements are countered by more straightforward songs like “Forced Convalescence,” the piano ballad “Hot Car in the Sun,” and the epic rocker “Calais to Dover” which gives the album a little room to breathe.
Saying that Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is musically adventurous is an understatement. From the bagpipes of “Persona Non Grata” to the programmed percussion pulsing throughout “Pan and Broom,” Bright Eyes wield many ideas and instruments with Mogis and Walcott playing banjo, Marxophone, hammer dulcimer, bajo sexto, Omnichord, harpsichord, and the mellotron. All these, plus conventional instruments like pedal steel, acoustic and electric piano, Hammond organ, trumpet, flugelhorn, and more.
It may appear that Oberst has it easy, playing just acoustic guitar and piano, but he wrote all of the album’s lyrics. The arrangements for orchestra and choir are wonderfully handled by Walcott. Bright Eyes called on dozens of friends to assist with their vision, including Flea of Red Hot Chili Peppers on bass and singer-songwriter Jesca Hoop on vocals. Produced and written by the band, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was was recorded in Omaha and Los Angeles.
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was makes Bright Eyes’ nine-year silence seem much shorter and it’s a testament to the resilient unity that Oberst, Mogis and Walcott have built up through the years. Bright Eyes has effortlessly picked up where they left off and the result is nothing short of splendid.