Is Bright Eyes a band or a nom de plume for Conor Oberst? The band members insist it’s the former, especially in light of Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was, their first album in nine years. In interviews promoting the reunion album, Oberst and his bandmates Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott have made sure to assert, time and again, that this is their most collaborative effort yet. You sense that, perhaps, they’re protesting too much. Because, no matter what, Bright Eyes will likely always be viewed through the lens of Oberst’s life and point of view.
Consider it the burden of being one of the most intensely loved and scrutinized singer-songwriters of the last 25 years. For the most die-hard Conor-ologists, the past five years have offered plenty of raw data to hash out and psychoanalyze. The 2014 rape accusation, later retracted, kicked off an extended period of personal problems for Oberst that also include health issues, the end of his marriage, and the death of his brother. Understandably, he has largely retreated to the comfort of bands, which has put him in close proximity to trusted friends and confidants and also lessened the pressure on him to serve as the focal point. Before reuniting Bright Eyes, he recorded a different reunion album, 2015’s Payola, with his aughts-era political punk band Desaparacidos, and formed Better Oblivion Community Center with Phoebe Bridgers, putting out a self-titled record in 2019. (In BOCC, Oberst arguably wasn’t even the biggest star, at least for millennial and zoomer audiences.)
Generally, those bands allowed Oberst to work inside of a leaner-than-usual operation, with lower stakes both personal and artistic. Contrast that with 2016’s Ruminations, his best album of this period, an unsparing and brutally austere acoustic work that laid his pain and anger bare. Compared with the tuneful indie pop of the BOCC album, Ruminations is a grueling howl of despair that digs deeper than any of his other recent records, while also dramatically paring back the grandiose arrangements he’s come to favor in his post-I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning work. (Oberst eventually released an album of greatly elaborated versions of the Ruminations material, 2017’s Salutations, that greatly dulled their original impact.)
On Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was, Oberst — in collaboration with Mogis and Walcott, as we’re required to duly note — is back to working on a huge canvas. Whereas Ruminations was unrelentingly spare, these songs are overstuffed with Walcott’s signature orchestral flourishes and a bevy of Mogis’ instrumental overdubs. Meanwhile Oberst is once again drawn to many of his pet themes: the suffocation of fame, the certainty of apocalypse (be it universal or his own personal demise), his desire to mature and achieve wisdom while also being wary of aging and the accompanying decay. (He sings in one of the album’s best songs, the self-explanatory “Forced Convalescence,” about “catastrophizing” turning 40. Though, really, he has also catastrophized every other age.)
All the while, a lingering question persists: Why did Bright Eyes come back? Did this album really need to exist? These are crucial riddles that Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was never quite resolves.
For the average Conor Oberst fan — the person who assumes that Oberst alone is synonymous with Bright Eyes — having this specific vehicle for his songs no longer really matters beyond the nostalgic power of the brand. But for Oberst himself, the idea to reunite his famous project seems to have been borne out of a spontaneous sentimental (and drunken) impulse. According to Billboard, Oberst brought it up while at a Christmas party with Walcott in 2017, after which “they immediately huddled in a bathroom to FaceTime Mogis, which they now recall with laughter due to how ‘festive’ they were.” Since the reunion was pursued in secret, they could proceed at their own pace, without any of the external pressure that might normally be part of a Bright Eyes album.
You can hear the time that was spent imagining these expansive soundscapes. Songs like “Just Once In The World” — a spiky waltz that unfolds with layers upon layers of guitars, drums, and strings — or the self-aware film-score sweep of “Stairwell Song” are lush sonic worlds upon themselves. But it still has the shape of a “typical” Bright Eyes record, right down to the spoken-word interlude that inevitably opens the album. Aesthetically, it feels like the album that might have followed 2007’s cult-obsessed country-rock fantasia Cassadaga had Bright Eyes reconsidered putting out 2011’s maligned (though sort of underrated) The People’s Key. Like Cassadaga, Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was unfolds as a series of epic Americana mini-symphonies, each one more grand and big-sounding than the last.
All that’s missing, unfortunately, is the most essential ingredient — the do-or-die tension that distinguishes the best of Bright Eyes, as well as Oberst on his own. This band’s greatest albums have an operatic, almost hysterical quality that pushes them to the brink of collapse. It is the opposite of low-stakes music — they are performed as if the room the band is playing in might fall into the Earth at any moment. Obviously, that kind of heightened emotional pitch is harder to replicate in middle age. It’s not even all that preferable once you’ve exited those ill-advised drama-hunting years in your teens and 20s. But Ruminations showed that Oberst could walk that tightrope in a more muted kind of way, as a grounded but no less haunted grown-up. On that album, his resigned sigh registered with the intensity of a scream.
There are no such moments on Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was. As impressive as is it as a production and (again) as a collaboration of musicians who each bring a unique set of skills to the table, it all feels a little remote. Songs come and go, usually at a stately pace, and as the record unfolds over 14 tracks — at least four too many — it all begins to fade into a samey, torturously mid-tempo, bombastic haze. Because the necessary conviction just isn’t there, the album never achieves the cathartic excess of an album like Lifted or even Cassadaga. It merely feels bloated.
If all art is ultimately a self-indulgent exercise, then Oberst was certainly justified in reuniting with his old friends Walcott and Mogis and making music that rekindled their bonds and soothed his troubled soul. For the listener, however, Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was is an initially frustrating, and then dull experience. Hopefully, it was better as a studio hang than it is as an album.