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Bright Eyes: The Long Walk Home


Published in Relix Magazine, November 3, 2020 After disappearing for the better part of a decade, Bright Eyes could not have picked a better moment to return with a new album. But there’s no way the band could’ve predicted that at the time. “Our music has always had a bit of an apocalyptic, dystopian bent to it, but I’m no Nostradamus. Maybe it’s just finally our time to shine,” the band’s singer and lead songwriter, Conor Oberst, says with a laugh. At the moment, he’s sitting in the backyard of his house outside Omaha, Neb., smoking a cigarette and rubbing the adoring face of his dog Lola as she jumps into his lap. One of his roommates is cooking mussels in white wine for dinner. He’s been spending time with his parents as many people have in 2020—sitting across from them in different outdoor, socially distanced settings. Later that night, Oberst’s neighbor and Bright Eyes bandmate Mike Mogis will say goodnight to his kids and traverse his backyard, walking past the shared studio that separates their properties, and come hang out. By all means, Conor Oberst is at home, even if he splits his time between Los Angeles and the Midwest. The pandemic, naturally, has caused everyone to slow down, dig in, take a breath and seek comfort—wherever they can find it. While Bright Eyes’ new album, the wildly ambitious Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, provides a dark view of the world—one filled with grief, heartbreak and eviscerating doubt— it also zeroes in on one comforting thought. If individuals don’t really have any control, then it’s better to accept the absurdity and dance on through. Or, as Oberst instructs on “Dance and Sing,” the album’s opening tune: “Got to keep on going like it ain’t the end/ Got to change like your life is depending on it/ It’s a long time coming and we’re taking it in/ What a wild ruse.” Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is Bright Eyes’ 10th album, and the first since the band released The People’s Key in 2011, which paused their slow, steady climb to the top up the indie-rock ladder. Since the mid ‘90s, the project had evolved from the utterly lo-fi solo recordings of a soul-bearing, barely pubescent Oberst in his Omaha basement to a full-fledged, world-touring rock band. And by 2011, it’d become apparent to the core members of Bright Eyes—Oberst, producer and multi-instrumentalist Mogis, and composer-keyboardist Nate Walcott—that it was time to step back and spin off into the unknown. But while Bright Eyes fans mourned the “official hiatus” of a group whose lyrics were no doubt scrawled in countless journals, the band’s central best friends quietly understood that, when the time was right, they could always go home again. *** The story of the band’s return has already been etched in Bright Eyes mythology: Walcott was hosting a Christmas party at his Los Angeles home in 2017 when Oberst pulled him aside to propose a new album. “It just spilled out of my mouth,” says Oberst. Excitedly, right then and there, they FaceTimed Mogis from the bathroom. “I don’t remember exactly what they said,” Mogis says, nearly three years after that night. “But LA is two hours behind Nebraska, so I had two extra hours of festivity in me.” Walcott admits that the idea didn’t materialize out of nowhere. “Maybe it was intuition,” he says. “Maybe Conor had mentioned it in passing, or maybe we were just on the same wavelength. But when he said, ‘Let’s get the band back together,’ it wasn’t a crazy shock.” Before 2018 dawned, the three bandmates talked again—to make sure the Christmas enthusiasm wasn’t just party-induced— and blocked out a handful of two-week writing stints to work on new music together. Yet, it took nearly four months before they could actually make it happen. In the years since Bright Eyes had gone off the road, all three musicians had kept extraordinarily busy. During the past nine years, Oberst has recorded three solo albums, including 2017’s Salutations, which he cut with Americana favorites The Felice Brothers, M. Ward, Gillian Welch and others; legendary drummer Jim Keltner served as his producer. In 2015, he reunited with his band Desaparecidos and dropped a pummeling, politi-punk album called Payola. And by early 2018, he was deep into a collaboration with burgeoning folk singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers; the duo, calling themselves Better Oblivion Community Center, would go on to become one of the most successful projects in Oberst’s nearly three-decade career. Mogis produced Oberst’s solo efforts, and worked with bands like Joseph and First Aid Kit while pushing forward as a film score composer. And Walcott, when not working with Mogis on scores, played with U2, Beck, Jenny Lewis and other big-name acts. In 2016, he joined the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a touring pianist—a gig that took him around the world multiple times. But Bright Eyes never truly faded from their memories. Mogis, Walcott and Oberst weren’t just bandmates—they were best friends and neighbors, constantly checking in on each other’s work and collaborating when they could. Still, the thought of making music together felt electrifying. “I was playing support for guys who’ve been in a band together for 35 years, and I was there to do a specific thing,” says Walcott. “If I told the Chili Peppers that I wanted to play a part on sousaphone instead of piano, it might not have gone over that well. That prepared me: As much fun as the Chili Peppers tour was, I couldn’t wait to be back with my buddies Mike and Conor, where we’re all truly creating something together. Where there are no defined roles.” Mogis had similar feelings: “As a producer, sure, I write parts for people and help them create music but, in Bright Eyes, we also have a part in the foundational writing process. I felt so ready to go back to that.” The pull to return home was not lost on the three longtime friends. Each had endured personal trauma and growth in the years since Bright Eyes had last performed. In 2016, Oberst’s older brother Matthew, who was also a musician, died suddenly; Oberst has attributed his death to an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. He and Mogis watched their marriages fall apart—by the 2017 Christmas party, both men were wading through various stages of divorce. Walcott had also become a father, learning to balance that role with life on the road. They didn’t need a new Bright Eyes album. They needed each other. “I can’t speak for the boys, but for me, the idea of going home and making music with the two people that I trust most felt really appealing. There were divorces, kids, falling in love, people dying. And we’ve known each other since we were kids—there’s comfort and security there,” says Oberst. “When we make music, I don’t need to explain anything. Mike and Nate know my ins and outs, my good sides and bad sides, my neuroses and my daydreams—all the things that make me who I am.” In the spring of 2018, the three friends converged at the studio located between Mogis’ and Oberst’s Omaha homes. Walcott stayed in the guesthouse. And they began rediscovering Bright Eyes, and each other. It was a process, knowingly or not, captured in the song “Forced Convalescence,” which had yet to be written: “In the dark/ At a distance/ I see everything at once/ Feel the wind/ Through the window/ And I’m overcome with love.” *** Before he adopted the moniker Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst was just a preteen discovering his hometown music scene with the help of his older brothers. At 13, he recorded his debut, the sparse, endearing Water, on cassette and, by 15, he’d formed the rock band Commander Venus. Shortly after, he created Saddle Creek Records, with Mogis and his brother Justin, which gave Omaha indie-rock a proper home. The label quickly achieved national attention and, by the end of the decade, Cursive, The Faint and Bright Eyes had all crept into the blog-rock conversation. And though Bright Eyes’ first official album was released when Oberst was already 18, it was actually recorded when he was a bit younger. (It’s called A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997, naturally.) Those early offerings found a shaky-voiced Oberst performing personal, probing songs—there were guitars, drums and the odd accordion, but Oberst stood in the spotlight. With 2002’s Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, Bright Eyes began experimenting. The tunes exploded—full string and horn sections, electronic flourishes and choirs. More than two dozen musicians appear on the record; Mogis played nine different instruments himself. With Lifted, Oberst began consciously shifting the focus away from himself, as well as his stigma as a prolific indie-rock prodigy. Bright Eyes, he believed, was a musical community. He’d go on to record solo albums, sure, but a Bright Eyes record required a village. “Believe me, I’m the last guy who wants to watch the Conor show,” he says. “That’d be a nightmare to me. When I listen back to my old records, the things that stick out to me and make me happiest are the other musicians’ parts, like an amazing guitar part Mike played. I don’t love the music because I’m involved, but because I can’t believe I got these people to play on my songs.” And that last point is where Down in the Weeds pushed Bright Eyes on a brand-new path. While Oberst previously only asked his Bright Eyes collaborators for their input after his songs were already crafted, this time he decided to actually write with Mogis and Walcott. “I tend to compose these straightforward folk songs. Nate is a gifted jazz musician, and Mike can play any instrument with strings, without trying. So we approached songwriting in a totally different way. They’d come at me with harmonies and chord progressions, and I’d sit there and figure out a melody,” says Oberst. All three bandmates had their own rooms in their studio, often running down the hall to show the others an idea—a melody, a sampled sound, a string arrangement. “I’d play them some weird chord progression, and it was such a delight to hear Conor say, ‘Oh, yeah, I got something for this,’ even if sometimes he said, ‘This is beautiful, but maybe it’s for your solo record,’” Walcott says with a laugh. Over several two-week writing sessions, they slowly assembled the album’s 14 songs like puzzle pieces. The lyrics—arguably what Bright Eyes is best known for— often came last. But the songs unlocked some of Oberst’s most powerful writing ever. Across Down in the Weeds, he reveals his overwhelming grief, and the hope and joy that’s growing through the cracks. On “TiltA-Whirl,” he writes about dreams of “my phantom brother” and how “my aging mother steeled herself against the gravity she felt,” but then finds solace—or even relief—at his tiny place within a massive world: “Life’s a solitary song/ No one to clap or sing along/ It sounds so sweet and then it’s gone, so suddenly.” On “Hot Car in the Sun,” he’s desperately lonely, “dreaming of my ex-wife’s face,” but reaches across the void: “Maybe you’re the same/ Maybe you’re afraid, too/ I love you/ I am you.” As a writer, Oberst admits that songs no longer explode out of him like they once did—and finding a form of accountability is key. The three-room writing sessions offered the balance he needed. “The best songs come from daydreaming but, in order to daydream, you need a few hours of nothingness. That’s not always easy to come by,” says Oberst. “But by working together, it was way harder to blow it all off and sleep all day when someone was sitting there asking what I think.” *** After nearly a year of off-and-on writing sessions, Oberst, Mogis and Walcott entered the studio in 2019 as far more experienced musicians than when they’d last created a Bright Eyes album— and they felt ready to experiment. To spark everyone’s creativity, the members of Bright Eyes didn’t play their demos to the other musicians on the LP until just before they hit record. Those musicians, all friends of the band, included Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea, Queens of the Stone Age percussionist Jon Theodore and Rage Against the Machine singer Zack de la Rocha, who played drums under the pseudonym Kip Skitter. Using three legendary hard-rock musicians as the rhythm section for Bright Eyes—a band whose biggest hit is the folk-acoustic love song “First Day of My Life”—may sound strange, but it was actually just one unexpected twist. The three Bright Eyes members treated the studio sessions, spread across 2019 in Los Angeles and Omaha, like a playground. On the song “Dance and Sing” alone, there’s a 20- part string orchestra, a small choir and a woodwind section. Theodore even plays the timpani. The band wove the sounds and the lyrics together so when “Stairwell Song” ends with Oberst singing, “You like cinematic endings,” Walcott’s orchestra swells. “We thought maybe it’d be too corny,” says Oberst. “But it was so beautiful. You like cinematic endings? Well, here it is—just like an old Hollywood movie, like John Williams.” The band wanted the doomsday ballad “Persona Non Grata” to replicate a funeral dirge, so they Googled “Omaha bagpipes.” “It was a shot in the dark, but we found some older dudes to come through. I don’t think they’d ever been in a studio before, but they did a great job,” says Oberst. The band recorded hundreds of parts with dozens of musicians by their account, far more than they needed. Walcott calls it “maximal Bright Eyes.” “That’s always been our M.O.—we just trust and don’t feel judged about our ideas. We recorded everything we could think of, but you can’t leave it all or it’d be a cacophony of nonsense,” says Oberst. Mogis calls the whole process “distillation.” “There’s way more shit than you’re actually hearing. We were constantly shaping and molding these songs, distilling them down or blowing them up until we got it right,” he says. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was has elements of all prior Bright Eyes records, without sounding quite like any of them. It’s gorgeous, heartbreaking, hopeful, intense and thoroughly strange, truly defying any genre boundaries. Nearly a year after they wrapped the album, the three friends mourn that they can’t take these songs on tour. But Bright Eyes is back—their former lives revived in an uncertain present, let alone an unknowable future. “10 years ago, I wanted to step away from Bright Eyes and redefine myself. But at the end of the day, all Bright Eyes means is that Mike, Nate and I will sit together and make music,” says Oberst, before his roommate calls letting him know dinner is ready. He pets Lola, stubs out his last cigarette and walks back home. “You can’t create the level of trust that we have. It exists because of a long, shared history. This music is all three of us blended together. And especially now, you gotta be with the people you love.”