I first really heard Bright Eyes in 2012, my freshman year of high school at Connor Oberst’s alma mater. I had recently begun driving my brother's 1997 navy blue Honda CRV, and a thin slot for compact discs offered itself as my only alternative to muffled classic rock on the radio.
A friend, aware of my plight, burned me a mix on a silver reflective disc, tattooed with smudged red marker-ink that read “Bright Eyes” in round-robin style. A makeshift best-hits album of sorts, it featured tracks from throughout the band’s career with a particular focus on two of the groups earlier and more well-received records: “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning” and “Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground.”
The middle years of my teens became painted by long drives through Omaha narrated by Oberst. To me, “First Day of my Life” is a particular drive to school in the hushed light of a snow-covered morning; “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” a night in a basement with friends drunk on cheap vodka; “Train Under Water,” a moment stopped to catch a breath during a run along the Missouri River. Certain streets, buildings, people and remembered nights in Omaha are, for me, perhaps appropriately, indelibly attached to certain lyrics, chords and albums.
My maturation as a Bright Eyes fan, however, has always inhabited an environment of unexpectancy. Discovering the group in 2012 and with their unofficial hiatus beginning in 2011, I maybe had hope for new music early on but only then. Listening to their albums for the majority of my life has been an experience similar to playing records by The Beatles. I’ve listened with no hope of seeing them perform live, no hope of peeling the plastic off a new LP. Sure, I can still go see Paul McCartney perform “Hey Jude” in concert just as I went to see Oberst perform “Four Winds” at Omaha’s Sokol Auditorium in 2014. But, in doing so, I wouldn’t be seeing The Beatles and I didn’t see Bright Eyes. The group, for me, has always seemed to be a memory more than anything living.
A phone call laden with rumors of a new album from a friend last summer and the subsequent release of “Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was” this past week has altered that reality. Throughout the past few days, on walks to class, over the low drum of a bathroom fan, as background noise while doing homework, I have been able to listen to a Bright Eyes album actively.
Maybe that’s not any different than when I heard pieces of “I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning” through the stereo of my car eight years ago. After all, the album was new then, at least to me. But, this album is like receiving a letter from a lost relative who I had long ago accepted to be dead, postmarked last week.
“Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was” is, in many ways, a debut album. Often, an artist or group’s first release acts as a concentrated exposition of collective experience — all events, feelings and creativity of a life beforehand put on display at once. The members of Bright Eyes lived a life of nine years between this album and their last. The lyricism and sound within it speak to that passage of time. For a critic to claim that an album is concerned with a particular topic is always an act of hubris, but to say that “Down in the Weeds” isn’t hauntingly painted with colors of heartbreak, death and fear of age would be to purposefully ignore 54 minutes pointing to the contrary.
The record’s first track “Pageturners Rag” opens with a shuffle of footsteps, the noise of a crowd and squeaked twist of a microphone before Connor’s ex-wife Corina Figueroa Escamilla invites an unseen crowd, in Spanish, to “take a walk through this long hallway, through the doors, and down memory lane.” A conversation follows over a melancholy piano melody between Corina and Connor’s mother. “I think about how much people need. What they need right now to feel like there’s something to look forward to,” they talk like this, erratically, before reminiscing on the death of Connor’s brother in 2016.
The thirteen more traditional songs that follow interweave these events (Connor’s brother’s death and his divorce) and feelings (of hopelessness) into a catalogue of music that is surprisingly digestible. Not to say that the album ever flirts with radio-friendliness or anything close to “pop,” but it avoids the traditional static, garage aura that dominated the band’s earlier more “emo” records. Inhabiting an undefined space between Connor’s folk-centered solo work of late and the rock and roll roots of Bright Eyes, the 14 tracks act as a mosaic of different styles colliding after ten years of absence.
“Dance and Sing” a track rife with string harmonies and possessing an almost symphonic quality, immediately follows the opener and brings hope to hopelessness. If Sisyphus found meaning in fruitlessly shouldering a boulder up a hill only to see it descend from the precipice, Oberst finds purpose in deciding “All I can do is just dance on through / And sing.”
Soon after, the four pre-released singles to the album feature: “Mariana Trench,” “One and Done,” “Persona Non Grata” and “Forced Convalescence.” A quartet concerned with highs, lows, recovery and settlement, the four tracks constitute the foundation of the record — each bringing a unique quality and representing a different style. Forced Convalescence harkens back to the staccato, electronic grain of 2005’s “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.” The chorus-driven nature of “Mariana Trench” makes it almost a song that wouldn’t get turned off at a party (similar to “Shell Games” off 2011’s “The People’s Key”).
Interwoven between are more somber, morose tracks not unlike those often present in the group’s earlier work on “Fevers and Mirrors” and “Lifted.” “Stairwell Song” — a tune of distressing, oscillating crescendo — distinguishes itself along with later songs like “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts).” “Could be so damn mean, but you were always sweet to me / But you swept me off my feet and we went flying,” speaks poignantly to an unnamed, undescribed loss in a poetic grace unmistakably Bright Eyes.
“Calais to Dover” and “Comet Song” close the album with strength and a clarity absent in its beginning. The pain underlying the joyous music present in the former is particularly moving. “If I was in London I’d hold you to everything / If we were in Cardiff I’d just sing / But I’m stuck in Omaha obsessed with my inventions / There isn’t a name for this condition.” Words can rarely bring any added meaning to words themselves, but in hearing the song through headphones, a car speaker, a record player — there is something unspeakable yet so vivid in that line. Maybe it’s the mention of my hometown, I can’t be sure. But, it has stuck with me for almost a week now, clinging to my mind.
It’s an odd feeling to be consciously aware that memories are being formed. I can remember the first time a friend played “The Calendar Hung Itself” for me, the rough leather couch I sat on, but I didn’t know, in the moment, that I would remember it better than any other five minute period in my life. Memories and their permanence are always most apparent after they settle.
Yet as I walk through campus, exhaling recycled air inside a cloth mask with the cords of headphones woven through its ear straps, I get a feeling that “Calais to Dover” will always, in my mind, be associated with the smell of fresh-cut grass and the sight of mask-wearing students walking six feet apart.
Artist: Bright Eyes
Album: Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Label: Dead Oceans
Favorite Tracks: “Calais to Dover," "Forced Convalescence," "Stairwell Song"
If you like: Better Oblivion Community Center, Phoebe Bridgers, Elliott Smith
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5