Photo by Danny Cohen
Bright Eyes Usher In A New Apocalypse
An announcement cuts through barroom chatter. In Spanish, a woman welcomes the crowd warmly, preparing them for the song ahead—at the end of a hallway, they’ll open the door of forgotten memory. If you don’t speak Spanish, you’ll still catch when she names the composition’s theme: "Your most vivid nightmares."
From there, "Pageturner’s Rag" dissolves into a ragtime overlapped with conversations; at first, it feels like you're sitting in the crowd.
But of course, the song is far stranger than that. Recorded primarily in Pageturner's Lounge, an Omaha bar co-owned by Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst, every line is deliberate. The bar "audience" received pre-written potential topics, phrases, or conversations on cue cards; you can hear those recordings throughout as Pageturner pianist Dan McCarthy plays and Bright Eyes member Nate Walcott joins on trumpet.
These conversations are spliced with snippets of a recording from Oberst's home, a three-hour conversation between him, his mother and his ex-wife Corina Figueroa Escamilla (the Spanish-speaking announcer) after they all took psychedelic mushrooms.
Oberst and his bandmates consider the dissonant opening track to be "what makes a Bright Eyes album a Bright Eyes album," calling it a "pay-at-the-door situation": if you’re willing to step through the oddities, then you make it to the songs. ("We’re kind of shitheads like that," he laughs.)
"I’ve always loved the idea of putting the music in a world that is outside of a sterile, cold, studio sonic environment, so the little sound collages and all the field recordings and bits of sound, that’s all throughout the record," Oberst says. "It creates a world for the songs to live in that isn’t just a straitlaced studio situation."
After a nine-year hiatus, Oberst, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott have returned with a new Bright Eyes album. Named after a now-abandoned poem/flipbook that Oberst was making after his brother’s death, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was finds them searching for what’s left among ruins.
Long considered eerie, surreal, or apocalyptic, Bright Eyes' wary-eyed paranoia is discomfittingly prescient for a COVID-era listener. Whether it’s capitalistic reanimation ("This old town looks empty but we knew it wouldn’t last/Behind bulletproof windows they’re still wiring the cash"), or more literal apocalypse ("This world went down in flames and man-made caves"), we’re in a strange world, made all the more disorienting by sudden, interruptive conversations and Mogis’ producing. The band wanted to ensure that after their time away, Down in the Weeds fit seamlessly into the Bright Eyes catalogue—as it stands, it could easily be a marriage between Fevers and Mirrors and Cassadaga.
While the album was recorded pre-COVID, its dystopian bend aligns uncannily with our present. A number of lines now feel eerie. Saying he’s "obviously not the only one with these ideas on my mind," Oberst believes he’s tapped into a collective consciousness "where maybe because of certain advances of the world, we’re all kind of dreaming the same dreams and having the same thoughts to some degree."
Reckoning with lost love, new love, endings, illness, and death, massive abstractions are cut with quotidian action—after all, even in the face of apocalypse, someone still needs to cut celery for soup.
"That approach of blending mundane things with more fantastical or supermacro broad philosophical concepts is interesting to me," Oberst says. "That's honestly the way I feel in my life: like most of life is routine and boring, but then I go to sleep and I have very wild nightmares or nice dreams, or during the day I’m preoccupied with some sort of gigantic thought that really has nothing to do with my life."
He says that, to some degree, he thinks of all his albums as concept albums because the songs come in waves and hinge on a specific set of obsessions. At the forefront on Down in the Weeds? Dissociation; paranoia; questioned faith; resurrection.
"To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)" is the most outright search for meaning, broken up by the words of a lover (who calls him exhausting), the words of the pope (benedictions) and the last words of Parisians who died in the Bataclan (ephemeralness). The song ends with a distorted, spoken exchange between Oberst and another, where Oberst interrogates: "What I'm wondering is, do you believe in god, champ?" "I believe that, uh…" "But you’re the champ, right?" The next track, "Calais to Dover," opens with a narrator who can’t recognize himself.
And as the songs' narrators (all composites) look for and lose themselves, paranoia furthers that divide, pulling harder on the tether to reality. "Mariana Trench" captures an entire world, pointing listeners to extreme highs and lows while warning of what lies between them: "Look out for the plainclothes/Look out for what the wiretap knows/Look out on the ever-widening money trail and where it goes."
It’s an ever-running current of love that keeps the album from giving in to its dread. While “Just in the World” starts by affirming that humans either discover or destroy, it leads into a narrator facing storms with his love and concludes: “If it ever occurred/just once in the world/a love as absurd/as ours I would scream what we lost/From the mountaintop.” Down in the Weeds never loses its sense of the world at large even as the individual loves and loses.
“I feel like some of my songs come across as a little schizophrenic: one verse will be about one thing or situation or person and the next verse will be about a totally different person and situation and they’re connected,” Oberst says. “They connect perfectly, logically in my mind, but they don’t necessarily come across as clearly to a listener, which I think is OK. I appreciate that in other people's music, a more surreal logical line.”
Oberst loves records that unravel and reveal themselves upon repeat listenings. He credits Mogis’ production style for Bright Eyes’ ability to do so: “every little sonic taster, little delay or weird effect — all that stuff might blow by you the first time you hear it, but if you listen on headphones enough times you start picking out more things.”
Bookended with subterranean vignettes, Down in the Weeds offers us a world uncannily similar to our own, where conspiracies intermingle with heartbreak.
"I’ve always been a pessimist and I think there’s been a slightly dystopian, apocalyptic bend to my songs and words for a long time, so it’s nothing new to me," Oberst says. He adds wryly: "I take no joy in being right about all this stuff."