For those with a certain affinity for emo music, Bright Eyes might as well be a classic rock band. Over the course of their first nine albums, Conor Oberst and his longtime collaborators, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, defined and refined a kind of sprawling, intensely honest brand of indie rock that would become an essential touchstone for a genre and an indelible document for an era. So when the band took a hiatus in 2011, following the somewhat divisive The People’s Key, it unofficially marked the end of an era.
As such, Oberst’s return to Bright Eyes after nearly a decade is no small gesture. But Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was feels less like a monumental happening and more like a seamless continuation, the sound of a band shrugging off a long hiatus and simply getting back to work. They’re still making deeply emotional indie rock songs, still flirting with the same grandiosity that helped cement the legacies of albums like Lifted and Fevers and Mirrors, and the songs still revolve around Oberst’s warbling search for the reasons we insist on continuing to exist when the world quite frankly seems to be crumbling all around us.
There’s something intoxicating about Bright Eyes tripping back onto a (purely metaphorical) stage on the album’s first proper song, “Dance and Sing,” which opens with a throat-clearing sound check before kicking into gear: “Got to keep on going like it ain’t the end,” Oberst sings. Adorned with a gorgeous string section, the track represents a kind of effortless widescreen ideal of a Bright Eyes song while setting the scene for one of the album’s key themes. “All I can do is just dance on through and sing,” goes the chorus, bringing to the fore the idea that, even as catastrophe seems to wait around every corner, the only way to carry on is to, well, carry on.
The songs on Down in the Weeds reprises the sheen and clarity of Bright Eyes’s later records, like Cassadaga and The People’s Key, and mostly eschews the rawer qualities of their early recordings. But the band also continues to pick up influences and incorporate new sounds into their foundation. “Mariana Trench” takes on a light ’80s-pop aesthetic with its high-pitched foundational synthesizers and big, bouncy chorus, while “Pan and Broom”—a small little tune that rests on a back and forth between a popping beat and an imitation sweeping sound—recasts Oberst’s bedroom-pop days with a more modern sound. With contributions from heavyweights like Jon Theodore and Flea, the album continues to expand Bright Eyes’s sonic palette while staying true to their core: “Persona Non Grata,” for instance, takes one of the band’s typical funeral dirges and exacerbates the drama with a bagpipe solo.
Perhaps the most integral component of Bright Eyes’s music is Oberst’s ability to probe deep into the heart of despair, ennui, and regret. There’s plenty of that here, but his aptitude for going right for the heart of the matter is most powerful on “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)” and “Comet Song.” The former recalls Oberst’s more unwieldy early days, for how it’s stuffed with ideas and little details that pack a real emotional punch: “I’ll ask my love/What will she say?/What’s it like to live with me here/Every fucking day.” It’s a testament to the band’s sharpened songwriting that the most affecting part of the track is the bright, ruminative guitar solo that appears where a chorus might go. Though they let their maximalist instincts shine, Oberst still resists the opportunity to sum things up neatly in favor of remaining ambiguous.
On the other hand, Down in the Weeds’s swooning closing track, “Comet Song,” does a good job of articulating some of the band’s main concerns. Oberst considers the existential weight of nostalgia and memory in some of the most affecting lyrics of his career, a crescendo of horns punctuating some of his most honest and gutting moments. “Spent decades in search of/What meant so much to you/Then sold the whole collection/Because the rent was due,” he sings in an aching reflection on the realities of growing up and moving on. But as “Comet Song” continues to swell, Oberst considers the sublime beauty in that fleetingness: “She doesn’t know yet what a comet does/You’re approaching even as you disappear.” No matter how much time has passed, Bright Eyes continues to be unmatched at tackling the biggest questions with a profound, heart-wrenching intimacy.