Review Summary: I felt lost and found with every step I took.
On the best song from Better Oblivion Community Center
, Conor Oberst seemed close to some kind of hard-earned peace about the loss of his brother, Matthew Oberst, who died in 2016. "Just go, out into the fallen snow", he sang with Phoebe Bridgers providing ghostly harmony. "Just go until you feel different". But if the last few months have shown me anything, it's that you don't really ever find the end of grief. At most you stumble into the eye of the storm and gain a little perspective on it, as Conor seemed to on "Service Road", as he does again every now and then on Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
, an album dedicated 'for Matty'.
On the first song from Down in the Weeds...
the MC promises us a guided tour of our "most vivid nightmares" via one "Pageturners Rag". It's both a bizarre opener and a very straightforward one, clearly intended to welcome us into an album of modern fever dreams: doomscrolling, as brought to you by the man who could never help reading the body count out of the paper. Oberst's first real statement in his own voice is a vow to "dance on through and sing" because it's all he can do, a mission statement for why a natural cynic and depressive would even commit to making music in 2020.
But it's not just our current hell that's weighing on Conor Oberst's mind. He later characterises life overall as "the Tilt-A-Whirl of our despair", a strong contender for the Most Bright Eyes lyric to ever exist. It's hard to blame anyone for the gloomy outlook now - especially Oberst, coming to terms with the loss of a brother and a marriage which came to an end, even amicably. This is an album born out of grief, to be sure, but not an album that wallows inside grief. This isn't the band who used to scream and thrash their guitars and drumkits like possessed demons. Oberst keeps his voice low and reserved, singing about his deceased brother, his ex-wife and his aging mother in quiet sentences. He lets Nate Walcott's stately strings and Jon Theodore's sinuous drums do the vocalising for him. The band have never sounded more one entity, looking out at the world through Conor Oberst's uniquely skewed visions, and recording whatever they see.
If the immensely underrated Cassadaga
was a roadtrip across America scored by psychedelic preachers and country singers in smoky bars, Down in the Weeds...
is a twisted companion piece, one where the travelers rush home in fear that it's the last chance they'll ever get. We're undoubtedly moving through a story, one soundtracked by eerie faint choirs and snippets of distorted voices and honest-to-god bagpipes breakdowns over slap bass runs from Flea. But the journey this time is through a dreamscape, whether that be Conor Oberst's or the entire world's, our most vivid nightmares as we struggle to fall asleep. Bright Eyes' world in 2020 is one of ghost towns where cash is wired behind bulletproof glass, of children playing silently in the shadows of buildings, of wiretaps and money trails going outside comprehension. "This world went down in flames and manmade caves", they warn apocalyptically – and what they find down in the weeds isn't necessarily worth saving.
Except that music has always been my saviour and I think Bright Eyes feel the same. They're spinning a lonely, sad narrative on Down in the Weeds...
, but in telling the story they share it with all of us, which naturally transforms it. Whether grieving an Elliott Smith-esque figure in "Stairwell Song", his brother or the world, Oberst doesn't grieve alone, and there's a beauty in that as warped as the soundscapes Mike Mogis casts around his words. Even the absolutely jaw-dropping "To Death's Heart (in Three Parts)", potentially one of the best songs to come from Conor Oberst's pen, finds strange and startling redemption in the abrupt end of life. Referencing his own depression and debilitating illness around the time of Ruminations
, and drawing a line from there to the Bataclan deaths in 2015 and Pink Floyd's "Wish You Were Here", Oberst finds comfort in the notion that "all that's constant is change". And if music's consummate purveyor of heartbreak and loneliness can find solace in togetherness, that means we all can, like the protagonist of Cassadaga
finding himself even as he loses all meaning.