“Got to keep going like it ain’t the end,” sings Conor Oberst on the first line of Bright Eyes’ first record in almost a decade. And while the singer has always had a knack for succinctly condensing life’s more existential moments, it’s an opener that seems to cut especially deep right now.
Granted, when the trio - Oberst, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott - decided to get the band back together after nine years away, they couldn’t have dreamt what would lie ahead. And yet somehow, with new album ‘Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was’, they’ve managed to channel the feeling of discontent and uncertainty that’s been swirling above our heads for most of 2020.
“I’ve been trying to ration my news intake because, y’know, I’m a pretty sensitive guy!” admits Conor with a wry chuckle, over the phone from his home in Omaha, Nebraska. “I get pretty affected by reading and listening to things. Of course, I wanna stay up-to-date but I dunno… I’ve found myself in a weird place…”
Having begun as an idea that “just spilled out of my mouth at this holiday party at Nate’s” back in 2017, it was only after checking back in a few days later that Bright Eyes found themselves committing to being a band again. “The way we make records takes a long time,” the frontman explains, “and it had been such a long time [since 2011’s ‘The People’s Key’], so we were just making sure we were all serious.”
In the interim, each member has been prolific in their own individual careers. Mike produced and worked on albums from the likes of First Aid Kit, and collaborated with Nate on the soundtrack for film The Fault In Our Stars. Nate became a touring member for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2016, while Conor himself has released three solo albums, returned to his punk band Desaparecidos for a long-awaited second record, and launched Better Oblivion Community Center, his record with Phoebe Bridgers.
So why get the gang back together now? “I think to some degree, it was just serendipity,” the singer says. “But also, underlying that, even though it wasn’t explicitly said, I think we had all been through a lot of things personally in our lives, and the idea of doing something that felt more like going back to home base, being in an environment that was completely comfortable… There’s a certain safety zone that you don’t always get in other projects, or working on other records.”
“I thought if we were gonna do another record that’s the three of us, let’s play to everyone’s strengths and make it as collaborative as possible.”
— Conor Oberst
Much like the reconvening of any group of old friends, those first initial steps “took a minute”, but the trio soon settled back into a familiar rhythm. “I remembered all the things that I love about them,” Conor explains, “and I remembered the things that we would argue about - they were still the same after all these years! That was reassuring! I dunno, if anything, I think we’ve gotten more tolerant of each other’s eccentricities. They’re both, I think, bona fide musical geniuses, but they’re both also really eccentric and strange people, and I love them for that.”
While traditionally, Bright Eyes records tended to start with the singer bringing songs to the studio, they wanted to change things up for a 2020 version of the band. “I thought if we were gonna do another record that’s the three of us,” says Conor, “let’s play to everyone’s strengths and make it as collaborative as possible.”
It’s a combination of this harmonious spirit and a harnessing of their eccentricities that comes to the fore on ‘Down In The Weeds…’. Opening with ‘Pageturner’s Rag’ - a spoken word-come-rag-tag tune that features two separate recordings from both Conor’s ex-wife and his mother - there’s an almost fever dream-like quality to the album that shines through, with luscious string arrangements and satisfying instrumental flourishes juxtaposed against Conor’s dark storytelling.
Renowned for their melancholic openness and his penchant for flirting with a more dystopian world view, on Bright Eyes’ latest, that outlook is in full force. And while the record comes imbued with a real sense of pain and loss - the album itself is dedicated to Conor’s brother Matt, who passed away in 2016 - it also manages, at times, to feel redemptive.
“I don’t think I’m super unique in the sense that we all have shitty stuff happen to us, and we all have our own various traumas and challenges,” Conor ruminates. “[For] all my life really - but it gets a little more potent as I get older - there’s that idea of trying to encapsulate the human experience and what that means. The juxtapositions of terror and beauty, and the light and the dark that swirls together to make what it is to be a human being, to be alive. Especially now, it feels even more…” Tangible? “Yeah, it’s like, who thought we’d be sitting in the middle of a global pandemic?!
“I guess what I’m saying is, those themes and that desire to blend all those experiences into my lyrics has always been something I was trying for. But it’s weird, being older,” he continues. “In some ways, things feel more intense because it’s no longer some bad daydream you’re having, or some bad anxiety. You know more what disease looks like and what ageing looks like, and the cycle of life that we’re all gonna get to; the realising the longer you live, it’s only gonna get worse in a way, because you’re just gonna have to say goodbye to more things. So there is more of a heaviness, I feel, but then at the same time it’s also not as intense because you’ve seen things before, you start to notice the patterns.”
In some ways, then, Conor’s mission to represent the human experience is perhaps most successful on ‘Down In The Weeds…’. A surreal journey through hurt and healing - much like the real life one he’s found himself on over the past five years - their latest album may feel like their most prophetic yet, but even in these darkest of times, it’s a reassurance that no matter what happens, we’re in this together.
‘Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was’ is out now via Dead Oceans.
As featured in the August 2020 issue of DIY, out now.