From the initial bars of Pageturners Rag, you’ll already know the mood that Bright Eyes’ new release is going for. The curtain falls on a noisy nightclub, and the artist plays a Scott Joplin style ragtime tune that isn’t fooling anyone. The melody is bright, but the rhythm is languid and the music is drowned out by the chatting crowd. Conor Oberst’s melancholy seeps through as the tune drifts into an emotive descent, coupled by the voice of his mother saying: “We have to hold on.”
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is a dense listen. It doesn’t shy away in its use of bold and epic soundscapes. It’s grounded by a heart that’s no stranger to pain and tragedy. Oberst has suffered the loss of his brother and went through a divorce, and these emotions fuel the bleakness of the album. But it doesn’t drag it down by any means. On the contrary, Oberst’s lyricism is as sharp and grandiose as ever and he doesn’t hold back on the instrumentation, making good use of folk rock and classical themes to paint each tidal wave of emotion. Supported by a crew of seasoned musicians that even includes Flea, who lends his bass on a few tracks.
“Mariana Trench” summarizes the overall theme of the album, as it captures life in its ups and downs. Oberst juxtaposes the deepest ocean depth with Mount Everest. Comparing it to his personal experiences while accompanied by grandiose horns, washed out with a muted folk aesthetic. “Pan and broom” muses on the nature of dreams and reality with its sparse droning synths. The song is uniquely stripped down compared to its contemporaries, creating a sense of apathy with the line: “Life just went down a drain of rainy days”. “Tilt-a-whirl” is where he dives into his personal life. He relives what he and his mother felt when they experienced a tragic loss, comparing life to a game of solitaire that ends abruptly.
Oberst is in his 40’s now, and while maturity has dampened the angst of Bright Eyes’ early releases, it is replaced by a sense of despondent resignation. This is best felt when he’s accompanied by piano. This is especially true in “Hot Car in the Sun”, which is by far the darkest song in the album. It may be short, but it speaks so much about how insidious self-destructive thoughts are: “Made my bed and I brushed my teeth / didn’t think about dying / got up to face another day”.
Even with it’s heavy themes, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is not without its spark of light. The faint glow that is surrounded by darkness depicted in the album cover is no accident. I’d argue that one can find it in “Dance and Sing” where Oberst resolves that even with all of life’s tribulations: “all I can do is just dance on through and sing.” It’s a message that hides in plain sight. Tucked behind the grand instrumentations, yet it rings the loudest of all. These tiny rays of hope is what makes the album great.