by Craig Howieson
It is a scene played out on an infinite loop. In the dying moments of a backyard party, a cool breeze hastens away the warmth of the day, as the smoke from snuffed out candles curls and evaporates. There is a scramble for chairs, as arms are thrust around shoulders, friends are interrupted mid conversation, kids hushed and nudged to the front; all huddled together for this one moment. Click.
Our whole lives can come to resemble that last minute scramble in front of a camera. A furious attempt to get ourselves straightened out, preparing the perfect representation of how we want to be seen: a snapshot of a life well lived. We crave the ability to freeze moments in time, hoping that we capture an untainted essence of the time, or a happiness to revisit. Something real. But we miss ‘what if’ just out of shot; a couple arguing, a kid crying alone, that one person who wasn’t invited to be in the picture at all. These are the types of photos that fade, never living up to the ravages of time, as we stumble onwards into the immediate future.
For fans of Bright Eyes, their records have come to act like these snapshots – a portal in time to a feeling, a place, a reason for escape. But, in a way, revisiting them is far more truthful than looking at any photograph. Conor Oberst’s words have been a source of comfort for over twenty years now – ever since he first belted out his naked poetry and unguarded journal scribbles into a four-track recorder in his bedroom. In exposing his pain, fears and embarrassments, he laid them out for all to share, so that we need not disclose our own. Within these poetic words and curiously structured songs, listeners found meaning and escape, and a connection that took them away. But Bright Eyes’ records are not revisited to wallow in the pain you felt at the time. They become useful as celebrations of the fact you overcame whatever it was that made you seek solace in them in the first place.
It has been nine years since the band’s last record. More than long enough for fans to lose hope of new material. It perhaps didn’t help that in the intervening years, Oberst has released some of his finest work, be it under his own name on Ruminations and Salutations, or with Phoebe Bridgers as part of Better Oblivion Community Centre – raising his own bar so ridiculously high that it seemed unlikely a Bright Eyes’ record would come along to try and surpass it.
As it turns, out a new Bright Eyes’ record isn’t just the fulfilment of fans’ wishes, it is also just what Oberst, Walcott and Mogis needed; a need that has allowed them to revel in the comfort of their past, and as a way to deal with the here and now. Now all the other side of forty, their perspectives have changed, but the overwrought, wide eyed reckoning with the world at large remains. Working more collaboratively than ever, the band continue to stitch the extremes of their sounds together, much as they have done since splitting themselves in two for I‘m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. The country and folk leanings are further hidden, with elements of synth pop and disco stirred into the pot, as Walcott runs amok on keys. Bright Eyes’ records have always inhabited their own little world largely due to Mogis’ refusal to play it straight with production. On Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, he again creates a slightly altered realm that evokes a nostalgic nausea. So overwhelming is this sense of being elsewhere that, at times, it has you yearning to get back to solid ground until you find your sea legs.
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was finds the band pushing harder than ever against preconceived ideas of what a Bright Eyes’ record should sound like. No one has ever sat listening to Bright Eyes thinking ‘you know what this needs…Flea on bass.’ But that is what we get here, and despite almost bouncing Oberst’s words off the page on Forced Convalescence, it gives the track, and the record as a whole, an added urgency. The twitching pulse of bass reinforces the anxious themes of Armageddon – `That isn’t what I heard / This world went down in flames and manmade caves’ – Pan and Broom)
Oberst’s advancing years have further sharpened his perception. Incorporating political and social ruin, his words, as always, veer from the personal to global. From ‘dreaming of my ex-wife’s face’ on Hot Car In The Sun, to being visited by his ‘Phantom Brother’ on Tilt-A-Whirl, his divorce and experiences with loss are peppered throughout the narrative, adding credence to album’s underlying pain – but all without consuming it.
The album opens with a sad rallying call – ‘Got to keep on going like it ain’t the end.’ As he grasps for solid ground, Oberst isn’t afraid to face the fears that come with the slip into middle age slip (‘Catastrophising my birthday / Turning forty / Ending up like everyone / There’s no escaping the housework / Or the bank clerk / Or the priest’ – Forced Convalescence). In fact, he seems to be using it to spur himself on, and to make a change before it is too late (‘But I’m sick of it / I’ve had enough / And now I’m ready for the war’ – Mariana Trench)
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was arrives at a time when we face a future that we cannot place ourselves in. Yet, it doesn’t try to tell us what is to come. It is impossible to take, or even attempt to frame, that picture. Instead, the record is a look at where we are, not knowing what approaches, but certain that we need to fight onwards or accept culpability. And if, as Oberst sings on Just Once In The World, ‘This world is waving goodbye,’ it will become another reminder of who we were when the world was alight – when crushing oppression met raging defiance. Click.
Secret Meeting score: 86
If you’d like to support us by subscribing to our zine, click here – it’s just £6 a year for four copies (inc p&p).