Published Aug 17, 2020Bright Eyes' press materials describe the group as "a project whose friendship is at the core" — except that's not the relationship listeners have with the veteran Omaha band. Throughout the group's early-'00s heyday, they were a glorified solo vehicle for songwriter Conor Oberst: the kind of project where he could gather all of his friends for an indie folk opus (2002's Lifted) or tear everything down for an insular synth-pop record (2005's Digital Ash in a Digital Urn).
But, now that Oberst has his own full-blown solo project, the only thing to distinguish a Bright Eyes album is the contribution of multi-instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is the group's first album since 2011, and takes a more collaborative, lavish approach than the project's best work.
The record begins in typical Bright Eyes fashion: with an adorably pretentious sketch, "Pageturner's Rag," a collage of cryptic conversation snippets, jazzy piano/horn tootling and sonic weirdness. But after that, we're into a string of elegant, ornate indie rock songs. The new wave-tinged "Mariana Trench" has one of the catchiest pop choruses you'll ever hear in a Bright Eyes song, but its poetic images of crumbling highways and wiretaps are a little too nebulous to really capture the horrors of the current moment. Back in the Bush era, Bright Eyes ruthlessly eviscerated America with "When the President Talks to God"; here, the best he can manage is, "Look out on the ever-widening money trail and where it goes." Okay, and?
Perhaps it's unfair to compare to the 40-year-old Oberst's lyrics to ones he wrote in his 20s, but even compared to his recent albums — 2017's Salutations or last year's Better Oblivion Community Center collaboration with Phoebe Bridgers — his songs here don't cut quite as deep. Down in the Weeds is full of artful, vaguely apocalyptic poetry, but grandly orchestral tracks like "Dance and Sing" and "One and Done" are easier to admire than deeply relate to. Oberst has matured into a confident, unmistakably unique singer, so the real pleasures here come when he desperately strains for the high notes in the chorus of "Calais to Dover" or quavers when crooning about chopping celery on "Hot Car in the Sun."
Even with its ominous warnings about a civilization on the brink of downfall, Down in the Weeds mostly sounds like a fun reunion between old friends. It's a logical continuation of 2007's slick Cassadaga (less so 2011's rock-inclined The People's Key) — but given the renaissance Oberst has enjoyed with his side-projects in recent years, it doesn't quite live up to Bright Eyes' lofty name. (Dead Oceans)