Long gone is the Conor Oberst capable of turning whiskey-scented words of longing into grand, fiery statements, ones that inflamed the selfish and angry nodes of sadness. Oberst’s early Bright Eyes work evolved over the years, both lyrically and sonically—as his songs got bigger, that theatrical sense of self-pity diminished. By the time of 2007’s Cassadega, Bright Eyes wasn’t even that sad anymore. A necessary evolution, sure, but for some the appeal was lost.
Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was is sad. It’s not consumed by that sadness, like Fevers And Mirrors. Nor is its pain reflected in its sparseness, as it was on Ruminations, Oberst’s 2016 solo album. But in the 11 years since Bright Eyes released The People’s Key, Oberst lost his brother, got divorced, and nearly saw his career derailed by a rape accusation (the accuser later recanted). On “Hot Car In The Sun,” a plaintive, piano-driven standout on Down in the Weeds, he’s just happy to wake up without thinking about dying. “I was dreaming of my ex-wife’s face,” he sighs, the words hanging in the air a moment. “This pain is not my own.”
Oberst once sang as if his heart were in the process of breaking in two; now, older and more mature, he’s able to reflect on the nature of his pain, to wrap it in humanity’s collective suffering. This clarity gives way to optimism, couched as it is in anguish. “All I can do is dance on through and sing!” he shouts with abandon on “Dance And Sing,” the words disengaging from his throat before sinking into Nate Walcott’s dramatic string arrangements. It’s a moment that evokes the Oberst of the early ’00s, the one whose trembling urgency built to fever pitches that spawned cathartic instrumental breaks. There’s plenty of them here, from the waltzing bagpipes of “Persona Non Grata” to the cacophonous orchestra of “Forced Convalescence;” each feels born of Oberst’s momentum, manifestations of what roils inside him. Unlike the singer’s rootsy solo work, Down In The Weeds is rich in what brought many of us to Bright Eyes in the first place: the drama.
Don’t expect Oberst, who never hesitated to criticize George W. Bush, to get political here (try Desaparecidos’ Payola instead). Absent, too, are the spacey nods to spirituality that consumed The People’s Key. The scraps of spoken dialogue that live on the fringes of these songs—an integral part of any Bright Eyes LP—are instead sourced from friends and family. Opener “Pageturner’s Rag” was recorded at the Omaha bar Oberst co-owns with a friend, and it features a ragtime piece alongside vocal snippets recorded onsite. Of the bar’s ragtime happy hours that inspired the piece, he said, “I always associated that with a joyous thing that made me feel good.” Elsewhere, you’ll hear the voices of his mother and ex-wife.
Oberst just turned 40, and Down In The Weeds feels like the work of someone who’s reckoning with middle age, or at least the specter of it. There’s the mature reflection he intertwines with his urgency. There’s his hard-fought optimism. And there’s the embrace of community, the sense that Oberst doesn’t want to stare down these songs alone. Press materials for the album emphasize that Walcott and Mike Mogis, both longtime collaborators, factored into the songwriting process more than ever before on this round. The Conor Oberst that was “drunk as hell on a piano bench” might be gone, but the one he grew into is one we’re just as eager to spend some time with.