Bright Eyes return with an orchestra, a choir, and more on their maximalist reunion album – review
Conor Oberst has been very prolific lately, but he hasn't released an album with Bright Eyes in nine years until now. And for a lot of people, the name Bright Eyes means something special -- it usually means the raw, personal, melancholic songwriting of early 2000s albums like Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. The new Bright Eyes album Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was doesn't sound like those albums, but between the Desaparecidos reunion album, his bare-bones solo album Ruminations, and the Better Oblivion Community Center album with Phoebe Bridgers, Conor has written some of the best songs of his career over the past few years, so it's no surprise that Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is full of great songs too. It doesn't sound like Fevers and Mirrors, but it doesn't really sound like any other album Conor's released either, yet it doesn't abandon his unmistakable singing and songwriting style. That's a pretty impressive thing for an artist over two decades and over twenty albums into their career.
Conor took a scaled-back approach with most of his recent projects (when Desaparecidos returned with a new album, they celebrated at Bushwick DIY venue Shea Stadium), but Down in the Weeds is the ambitious, maximalist album you might expect from a band who were going to mark their return with three nights at the Hollywood Palladium and one at Queens' Forest Hills Stadium before the pandemic hit. It's got a gospel choir, an orchestra, bagpipes, Flea on bass - the works. "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," says longtime Bright Eyes multi-instrumentalist Nate Walcott, and that very much comes through in these songs. At this point, what differentiates Down in the Weeds from Conor's many other projects and makes it distinctly a "Bright Eyes album" is not that it sounds like Fevers and Mirrors, but that it was clearly a collaborative work with Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. It's Conor's voice that makes the music instantly recognizable, but this album is much bigger than Conor Oberst. It sounds like exactly what it was: three old friends coming together to try out their wildest ideas, and not worry much about what people will think of it. Bright Eyes already released a handful of classic albums, they already "retired." They don't need to worry as much about pressure from the music industry and fans or about expectations of what they should or shouldn't sound like. They can just make the record that feels right, and that's what this is.
All the choral and orchestral work does a great job of embellishing these songs and making them sound multi-layered, rich, and beautiful, but mixed in with all the maximalism is the sense of intimacy and melancholy that Conor usually brings to his best songs. Elements of his bare-bones, piano or acoustic guitar-led singer/songwriter work are weaved into Down in the Weeds' grand arrangements, making for an album that feels both big and small all at once. In that sense, it feels similar to Conor's BOCC bandmate Phoebe Bridgers' new album Punisher (which Conor, Nate Walcott, and Mike Mogis all contributed to), and it's not a small feat that a Bright Eyes reunion album would sound like a great companion to one of the year's most acclaimed indie albums. They've been a huge influence on so much of the personal, introspective, singer/songwriter indie that has come to prominence in recent years (including not just Phoebe but also Lucy Dacus and Japanese Breakfast, both of whom were set to open the Bright Eyes tour, not to mention The 1975 and Post Malone), and they seem enthusiastic about passing the torch on to the new generation, and getting out at least one more triumph under the Bright Eyes name in the process.
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is out now on Dead Oceans. Stream it and watch a few videos from the album below...