After the release of their 2011 album The People's Key, Bright Eyes disappeared. The Omaha, Nebraska band had grown from their start as an outlet for teenage songwriter Conor Oberst into a genre-defining institution of angsty, emotive indie folk that could take experimental turns without warning. Oberst's wavering vocals and high-drama lyricism were eventually joined by contributions from official bandmates Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. All three continued various creative endeavors after 2011, but it had been decided at some point that Bright Eyes was done until the trio reconvened. That reconvening comes with Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, the group's tenth studio and first new material in nine years. What's most striking about the 14 tracks that make up Down in the Weeds is how in line they are with Bright Eyes albums past. Returning after almost a decade off to a project known for bold left turns and unexpected shifts in approach could have more likely resulted in a brand new sound, but instead elements from most of Bright Eyes' best-loved phases show up in updated forms. Oberst's heartaching, Dylan-channeling folk that was spiked with weird field recordings on 2002 breakthrough album Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground can be heard in "Stairwell Song" and the dour, swaying "Persona Non Grata." The canned laugh tracks and bizarre found sounds on intro track "Pageturner's Rag" also recall the cryptic atmospheres Oberst explored on his early-2000s material. The triumphant string and horn arrangements of "Dance and Sing" harken back to 2007's Cassadaga, and there are hints of the band's flirtations with electronic sounds sprinkled throughout. In addition to the familiar styles, Bright Eyes break plenty of new ground as well. "Marina Trench" throws everything at the wall at once, with bass synths burbling along to hyperactive drum patterns for a song unlike anything the band have aimed for before. "One and Done" is a typically downtrodden Oberst song, but echoey clattering rhythms, noisy sound effects, and uncharacteristically funky bass gather around the wounded melody for an over-the-top presentation. Down in the Weeds avoids being either a phoned-in nostalgia trip or a wildly new direction that would alienate fans. Instead it continues Bright Eyes' evolution without skipping a beat, and manages to be one of their stronger records in the process.
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was Review
by Fred Thomas