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The Plans Were Never Finalized: The Long-Awaited Return of Bright Eyes

After a nine-year absence filled with heartache, debilitating controversy, and uneven side projects, Conor Oberst and Co. are back. Can they recapture the classic Bright Eyes sound?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bright Eyes will be in business as long as there are kids who feel like freaks upon entering high school, just like Conor Oberst did. Which is to say, forever. “I know this because I see the royalty statements,” Oberst jokes during our Zoom conversation, reflecting on how his band’s 2000 masterpiece, Fevers and Mirrors, continues to connect with younger generations who share the alienation he felt as a songwriting wunderkind marooned in Middle America. As Adam Duritz once put it: “I went to an all-boys Jesuit Catholic high school and I was a little skinny effeminate kid that liked music at a school that was all about football and shit.” Though many still turn to Bright Eyes as a shorthand for the messiest parts of their adolescence, how’s this for maturity: At 40 years old, Oberst might actually be able to empathize with the jocks. And he has Bill Murray to thank.

Though he can appreciate the Lakers now—the inevitable result of living in Los Angeles and being friends with Flea—Oberst had never attended a college basketball game until he was offered tickets by Murray to see his hometown Creighton Bluejays battle their Big East archrival, Xavier, where Bill’s son Luke was an assistant coach at the time. Oberst says the hype is real with Murray, that he’s always popping up out of nowhere with magical gifts and an underlying, mischievous intent. He ended up with courtside sides right behind the Xavier bench, absorbing every vicious taunt from the Omaha crowd even though they were aimed at Trevon Bluiett, who even a novice like Oberst could recognize as being “so obviously better than everyone else on the court.” A supremely talented 20-year-old powered by the hostility Nebraskans can unlock only through college sports—I imagine Oberst could relate.

“I’m a … how do I say this, polarizing figure in this town,” Oberst surmises in the kitchen of his Omaha home, accompanied by Lola, his dog and “scruffy shadow.” He’s mostly referring to the way his public politics clash with moderate voters in a state that’s “Big Red” in more ways than one. Oberst donated to the campaign of Kara Eastman, a progressive candidate in Nebraska’s second congressional district, who will be going up against the Republican incumbent, a man with the absurdly on-the-nose Midwestern Republican name of Don Bacon. He is not referring to his standing with local institution Saddle Creek, the label that turned Omaha into a previously inconceivable indie rock hotbed in the early 2000s, with releases from Bright Eyes and other homegrown acts like Cursive and the Faint. Like Oberst, Saddle Creek now operates both out of Omaha and Los Angeles, and all of the label’s earliest flagship acts have moved on to other labels. Over the years, Oberst’s numerous solo and side projects have found homes at Merge, Nonesuch, and Epitaph, respectively strongholds for centrist indie, roots music, and punk rock. One would assume that he was simply looking for new perspectives and new voices outside of his main project. But as the members of Bright Eyes pointed out in a recent Billboard interview, there’s been a long-brewing animus between Saddle Creek and the band. As multi-instrumentalist/producer Mike Mogis put it, “To be honest, it felt like when we would turn in records for Saddle Creek, it was never met with that much excitement and positive feedback.”

So Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was, out Friday, bears the imprint of Dead Oceans, the Bloomington, Indiana, label home to Mitski, Japanese Breakfast, and Oberst’s Better Oblivion Community Center partner Phoebe Bridgers, artists who make brutally candid and frilly indie rock that fills the role for zoomers that Bright Eyes once did in decades past. And yet there’s still something shocking about a Bright Eyes album not coming out on Saddle Creek—indie rock’s answer to Snoop sitting on a Pen & Pixel–designed throne after he signed to No Limit.

Oberst’s past decade has been marked by personal tragedy, most notably the 2016 death of his brother Matt at 42, a teacher in North Carolina and former frontman of Saddle Creek ’90s revivalists Sorry About Dresden. Three years prior, a woman said Oberst raped her, though she later said the incident never happened, but not before it took a debilitating toll on his physical health and his career; while the reception of his 2014 solo record, Upside Down Mountain, was hurt by the surrounding controversy, the album was also the latest evidence of a perceived creative decline. Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was recasts Oberst as a newly relevant cultural touchstone—largely, if not entirely, attributable to Better Oblivion Community Center. Though he’s been cagey with the press in the past, the Zoom window into Oberst’s kitchen is a now familiar view for journalists in the thick of an all-out media blitz for the first Bright Eyes album in nine years. “I’m just now getting into this part of the job,” Oberst says. “It’s the only part of the job because we can’t fucking play shows.”

In every Bright Eyes profile surrounding Down in the Weeds—and there are many—one must retell the story of how they got the band back together: In 2017, Oberst and multi-instrumentalist Nate Walcott ducked out of a Christmas party into a bathroom to FaceTime Mogis, who immediately accepted the offer. It’s a feel-good narrative that speaks to friendships that span decades and also makes clear that while Bright Eyes is synonymous with Conor Oberst in the public eye, this is a band. During this album rollout, all members have been given equal billing, are a part of the interviews, and much to Mogis’s chagrin, participants in the photo shoots. “The last thing the world was clamoring for was pictures of us in pastel suits with flowers,” Mogis says, expressing a “visceral opposition” to the searing sight of Bright Eyes being recast in the image of a glowstick-waving British dance-punk band from 2005. “But that said, maybe even less needed in the world was a picture of us with black shirts standing against a wall or sitting on a couch.”

Mogis says their manager sold it as “the National taking a Flaming Lips photo,” a chance to see a familiar, stereotypically grumpy indie rock institution in brighter hues. Walcott is quite familiar with the power of lamé fabrics, having spent years as a touring keyboardist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. He declines to explore the explicit differences between the leadership styles of Conor Oberst and Anthony Kiedis; “for legal reasons,” he says, in the deadpan tone both he and Mogis take whenever they crack a joke at Oberst’s expense (which is quite a lot). Walcott soon reframes the discussion: “The thing that struck me with the Chili Peppers that continued throughout the making of this record was the similarities in certain aspects, mainly the fact that it was really about friendship ... and how far back those friendships went.”

For Bright Eyes, it’s about 25 years, give or take. Mogis recalls lugging gear over to Oberst’s basement to put the first Bright Eyes recordings to tape; Oberst was 15 at the time. For years, Mogis was the Saddle Creek house producer, behind the boards for the label’s astonishing run of quasi-emo classics and virtually everything it released between 1997 and 2006. His portfolio also includes M. Ward, Man Man, Ruston Kelly, and Lightspeed Champion, Dev Hynes’s one-off foray into Saddle Creek–style indie folk before he reinvented himself as Blood Orange. Mogis now takes up residence in Omaha’s ARC Studios, a lavish recording compound that boasts the same mixing console as Capitol Studios and has attracted out-of-towners ranging from Julian Casablancas to Jason Mraz to American Football.

Though my talk with Bright Eyes happens in staggered increments—first Oberst, then Mogis and Walcott—the dynamic in their friendship and their creative process plays out. Oberst is expressive and raw, Walcott takes long pauses to thoughtfully embellish the conversation, and Mogis is the most comfortable saying things that keep his buddies in check. Down in the Weeds introductory gambit, “Pageturner’s Rag,” is insight into their creative process, a nearly-four-minute skit recorded at Oberst’s bar in Omaha that was the last thing done for the album and a nonnegotiable choice as the opener. “Conor claims to be one of the best sequencers in the world,” Mogis jokes. “I’m kidding, though he did say that the other day.”

Anyone who’s heard multiple Bright Eyes albums knows how they’ll start—which is to say, they won’t really start for several minutes, as they frequently begin with staged conversations (the most beloved, and shortest, occurs on I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning). And after nine years, what’s four more minutes of waiting? There’s maybe a dozen voices heard before Oberst reemerges with the hypothermic quaver that he reserves for Bright Eyes albums—the first is his ex-wife speaking in Spanish, then several others on mushrooms, including Oberst’s mother (at least that’s what Mogis says). I imagine many will skip “Pageturner’s Rag” after the first listen, even if it’s the truest expression of Bright Eyes’ triumvirate power structure: Oberst imagined the grandiose conceptual outline and tasked Walcott with the complexities of music theory. “He mentioned Joplin, Satie, ragtime … but make it broken and all fragmented,” Walcott says. And then Mogis provided the studio wizardry that makes it sound like something other than a complete mess, like “taping boom mics to people’s shoes” and sorting through hours of tape. “It’s some form of an annoying intro to weed out the fans or let the listeners know what they’re in for,” Mogis states bluntly.

Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was takes every opportunity to announce itself as a “classic Bright Eyes album,” even though “classic Bright Eyes” can mean two different things. I was born less than a month after Oberst, so the release of Fevers and Mirrors exactly bisects our lives. That album and its monumental follow-up, Lifted, are “classic Bright Eyes” for me, unstoppable outpourings of ego and self-pity over angrily strummed guitars and patchworked orchestra pits, with ambitions that far exceeded their budgets—the ones that supplied countless LiveJournal status updates and are thus my framework for understanding how Bridgers’s Punisher functions for 23-year-olds on Twitter.

This was what I expected upon first receiving inside intel about a new Bright Eyes album last year, having been promised “no twang.” This person knew I wasn’t much of a fan of 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, which puts me in a tiny, tiny minority of Bright Eyes listeners. After years of evading “new Dylan” speculation, Oberst made a stripped-down folk-pop album about televised war, beautifully doomed romance, and living in New York City. It became his true mainstream breakthrough, setting the course for running out the decade as a rootsy NPR darling. Ultimately, “classic Bright Eyes” is a debate between people who felt crushed by the pointlessness of life to “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” and people who used “First Day of My Life” at their wedding.

Whereas some bands return from a lengthy hiatus bent on completely deconstructing their artistic process, reinventing themselves, or at least unburdening expectations of their younger selves, Bright Eyes did the opposite. “Dance and Sing” was the first song that came from their initial writing sessions, and the blueprint was enough to convince Mogis that “this is definitely gonna be a Bright Eyes album.” It’s now the first actual song on Down in the Weeds, and very much “old Bright Eyes.”

Witness Oberst’s first words on the album: “Gotta keep on going like it ain’t the end,” a line that, like just about everything now, will be interpreted in the context of the quarantine. A year ago, it would’ve just been a classic Oberstism, a metacommentary on how Bright Eyes indeed kept on going when most thought they were at an end. In the same way he kinda sorta nicked “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” on “Four Winds” or “No Woman, No Cry” on “Something Vague” or outright did “Sunrise, Sunset” karaoke, the melody of “Dance and Sing” is so sturdy, so instantly memorable, that it could trick you into thinking it was already in the public domain, like maybe something you sang in elementary school during American history. “All I can do is dance on through...AND SING!,” he shouts toward the song’s end, and an actual choir comes in because Bright Eyes albums are loaded with these kinds of musical theater cues (see also, “you like cinematic endings” on “Stairwell Song,” followed immediately by a string section).

While there are occasional flashes of the sturdy, roots-rock formalism of I’m Wide Awake, Down in the Weeds swaps out Tasteful Conor’s buddies—Emmylou Harris, Jim James, the Felice Brothers—for the plutonium-powered rhythm section of the Mars Volta’s prog-rock landmark De-Loused in the Comatorium, one of Oberst’s favorite albums of the 21st century. Oberst says that the band’s drummer, Jon Theodore, forced him out of that “L.A. Americana shit” that described a lot of his lesser works from the past decade. “All my friends want to play like Levon Helm,” Oberst notes, whereas Theodore plays the kind of mammoth, rhythmically challenging beats that Bright Eyes used to need two drummers to pull off on Lifted. The slap bass hits on “One and Done” are the first reminder that Flea is on this record—the guy knows how to make slap bass and mope work together.

Some might be disappointed that Oberst avoided the one thing people would expect of him, or really any substantial indie rock musician in 2020: political Bright Eyes. Or, at least overtly political Bright Eyes. Though George W. Bush’s public image continues to soften in comparison to that of Donald Trump, listen to the podcast Blowback for a reminder of what Oberst was up against when he made “When the President Talks to God”—a one-off that Oberst wrote because he wanted to do something “more fucked up and punk rock” than playing “First Day of My Life” on The Tonight Show. “It’s not a good song,” Oberst admits and, indeed, it does read like a rushed piece of #resistance-core. But in 2005, “there was still a needle to move,” and it’s just about the only protest song that anyone remembers from the era.

Down in the Weeds does not attempt to make “When the President Tweets at God,” or whatever you’d expect from its 2020 equivalent. Oberst’s apocalyptic visions are global, environmental, at times with a teenage glee about our impending doom, like Greta Thunberg thumbing through the Alternative Press during study hall. When the Big One hits and the 405 crumbles into the sea on “Mariana Trench,” it’s a chipper, folk-rock answer to Tool’s “Aenima.” “There is a collective consciousness and to some degree, we dream each others’ dreams and there are zeitgeist touchstones between all humans and life,” Oberst explains, and there are moments that are eerily prescient—“Forced Convalescence” was a single. But Oberst doesn’t take himself for a soothsayer by any definition of the term. “I’ve been singing about dystopian, apocalyptic shit for a long time.”

Some of the early reviews for Down in the Weeds are calling it Bright Eyes’ best albums in years, a tepid bit of praise when literally any other adjective would result in a true statement about the only Bright Eyes album in years. Most likely, they mean “their best album since I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning,” the same way Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Achtung Baby, and Automatic for the People have been evoked for countless four-star, “their best album in years!” Wilco, U2, and R.E.M. reviews; after a stretch of lesser-loved experiments, just about any invocation of their consensus-building classic can turn a pretty good album into a legitimate event.

Oberst has put his name on quite a few lesser-loved experiments in the past 15 years, most notably Digital Ash in a Digital Urn—released on the same day as I’m Wide Awake—which was filled with paranoid accounts of cheap sex and mid-grade coke set to bloodshot beats that sound like a vampire Postal Service (Jimmy Tamborello provided guest production on one track). Though it’s gained something of a cult following among Bright Eyes’ Bonnaroo-attending demographic, 2007’s shaggy Cassadaga predicted Oberst’s time as a wanderer in the jam-band diaspora, joining the self-explanatory Monsters of Folk and fronting the Mystic Valley Band, which likewise is exactly what it sounds like. “One of the scariest things I ever did was when the Mystic Valley Band opened for Rage Against the Machine,” Oberst recalls. Even if it was for a protest show against Arizona’s indefensible SB-1070 immigration bill, it was still a Rage Against the Machine reunion gig. “It was terrifying. I’m on my acoustic guitar … these people did not want to see me out there.” It would’ve made way more sense for him to perform with his flamethrowing punk act Desaparecidos, who wrote a song about Arizona’s racist police policies (“MariKKKopa”; they’re not a subtle band) later included on 2015’s Payola, a frothing recap of the horrors of American health care, the endless Iraq War, Anonymous, Occupy Wall Street, and everything else that was shrugged off as politics as usual under the Obama administration. “[Payola] was by far the most overtly political record I ever made and I don’t think anyone really gave a shit,” Oberst snarls. “I don’t know if anyone listened to it.” The same feels true of 2016’s Ruminations, a cabin-fever solo album that is as close as Oberst got to outrightly addressing the cataclysmic toll on his life and career caused by the outside situations he faced at the time. Songs like “Counting Sheep” and “You All Loved Him Once” were so raw and unnerving that he remade the album with the Felice Brothers in 2017 as the much longer and tamer Salutations.

If there were ever a time for Bright Eyes to indulge in those same challenging impulses, now would be it. Mogis acknowledges the possible upside of bypassing the initial touring run for Down in the Weeds: “Whenever we tour and play songs from ‘the new record,’ nobody applauds.” He then goes so far as to say that they could play deep cuts from Digital Ash (the answer to his asking Walcott, “What are our least popular songs?”) and still get rapturous applause.

Maybe if you’ve spent your 20s feeling like a freak, this is what you need, even if it does seem contradictory for an end-times album to suggest “it gets better.” Or, at least the drama subsides. On “Calais to Dover,” Oberst pledges to pay for his wrongs, an inversion of “The Calendar Hung Itself…” or “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” where others have to suffer for the sake of his art. “Spent decades in search of what meant so much to you / then sold the whole collection because the rent is due,” goes a lyric on “Comet Song”; not coincidentally, Saddle Creek released a vinyl boxed set of their 2000-11 studio albums in 2016, which I assumed would be a tombstone for the band after The People’s Key. It costs $150, which could’ve come in handy during some lean months, but mine’s still at an ex-girlfriend’s apartment.

Later in that same song, Oberst gets a dish thrown at him, and I mostly wish for the Bright Eyes songs that could make a heated argument with your partner feel like the end of the world, and Down in the World’s overtly doomsaying cuts don’t quite get there, at least in the way recent works by bands raised on Bright Eyes do. Listen to how the bagpipes wheezing through ominous lead single “Persona Non Grata” were used to a more dazzling effect on Foxing’s apocalyptic masterpiece Nearer My God. Or how the extravagant closer “Comet Song” pales to Phoebe Bridgers’s own unashamedly over-the-top close from this year, “I Know the End,” which sounds like Saddle Creek’s entire 2002 happening at once. And as Down in the Weeds progresses at its midtempo, maudlin pace nearly uninterrupted for about an hour, I end up missing the polarizing guy that Oberst says he is.

The “return to form” is clinched by Oberst mostly doing away with the inscrutable metaphors of Cassadaga and The People’s Key for legible songwriting about his own life. If Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted drew ire for overdramatizing the most common existential postgrad crises—no one under the age of 25 should be able to listen to “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” without a prescription and medical supervision—Down in the Weeds is likely to earn praise for taking the opposite tack and grieving about heavy grown-man shit like a grown-ass man.

His brother Matt gets a sweet, short tribute on “Tilt-a-Whirl.” Oberst later sings of “catastrophizing my birthday, turning 40,” and being haunted by visions of his ex-wife. Both of these moments occur while he’s tidying up the house and chopping celery. “Make a list of what you lost / That’s all I want / I’ll pay for what I’ve done,” he pleads on “Calais to Dover.”

It’s a far cry from his yelling “THIS ISN’T HAPPENING HAPPENING HAPPENING HAPPENING” at the slightest provocation and admittedly closer to the way people my age experience the exact things he’s singing about. It’s not a Bright Eyes album that will make anyone feel 20 again, but it achieves what basically every Oberst project since I’m Wide Awake attempted to accomplish: deflate the myth of Conor Oberst, and present him as just a guy, a 40-year-old divorced guy, making soup, sweeping the carpets, spending time with his dog and otherwise getting on with the business of his life.

Ian Cohen is a writer and registered dietitian living in San Diego. His work has appeared in Pitchfork, Spin, Stereogum, and Grantland.


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