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Bright Eyes – Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was

Discussion in 'Article Discussion' started by Melody Bot, Aug 31, 2020.

  1. Melody Bot Aug 31, 2020
    (Last edited by a moderator: Sep 1, 2020)
    Melody Bot

    Your friendly little forum bot. Staff Member

    This article has been imported from chorus.fm for discussion. All of the forum rules still apply.

    On “Calais to Dover,” the penultimate track on Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, Conor Oberst and company erupt into a huge, catchy, and devastating chorus, one that has all the trademarks of vintage Bright Eyes. There’s Oberst’s famously clever wordplay, where he examines his paralysis (“nothing is changing”) amidst a divorce (“everything’s changing”) while subtly playing with the expression “to state the obvious,” which, in its final declaration, closes the song like a gut-punch. Then there’s Oberst’s distinctively tremulous, emotive voice and the frantic energy that carries it; here Oberst’s trembling words pour out of him and, by the end of the song, he abandons words altogether and expresses his grief through a primal wail. And then there’s the glorious instrumentation, where a rush of pianos and shimmering guitars make the song feel massive—as they swell, it’s hard not to be swept up by the grandeur of the music and then, as Oberst’s clear vocals come into focus, be crushed by his sadness. The song encapsulates so much of the appeal of Bright Eyes: there’s often a simultaneous joy and pain in listening, as the group pulls you into their rich sonic world and then leaves you vulnerable to Oberst’s poignant lyrics. For these reasons, “Calais” is the standout to Weeds and one of the best Bright Eyes songs of the past 15 years. It’s also the album’s sole takeaway.

    With its lavish production and alt-country leanings, Weeds sounds a lot like the first half of 2007’s Cassadaga, which featured a lead singer who, for the first time in his career, occasionally sounded disinterested. From that record, “Classic Cars” was its nadir (and also the transition into the latter half of the album, which features some actual classics); Oberst’s urgency was absent, so the stakes of the song felt nonexistent. Some of 2011’s The People’s Key felt like a corrective course, with Oberst singing his heart out on songs like “Shell Games” and “Jejune Stars,” and when his fraying voice couldn’t hit all the high notes, like on the gorgeous “Beginner’s Mind,” he employed vocal effects to help him ascend to those heights. Those songs proved that an animated Oberst was still a commanding lead vocalist, whose music, particularly with multi-instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott beside him, could be both arresting and transcendent.

    But, nine years later, Oberst’s passion and energy are hard to find on the dismal Weeds. Just compare “Dance and Sing,” the second song (after the skip-it-or-fast-forward introduction) from Weeds, with “Method Acting,” the second song from LIFTED. On “Method,” Oberst is brimming with energy, as he gasps and shouts and sings and screams, his voice as intense as the song’s relentless, pounding marching drums. Oberst truly sounds alive with such possibilities, and there’s no doubting him when he announces “all I know is I feel better when I sing”; his music affirms it. On “Dance and Sing,” by contrast, Oberst carries the country drawl characteristic of much of his post-2005 work, sounding downright conversational, like he’s reciting a poem in 4/4. The music follows suit, with a beat that’s suitable for gently nodding your head and tapping your toes—a fitting sound, I suppose, to Oberst’s defeated admission, “all I can do / is just dance on through / and sing.” Whereas on “Method Acting” Oberst sings because “burdens are lifted from me,” on “Dance and Sing” our narrator admits that singing is just his job—not a passion or a therapy but a profession. Oberst’s confession sets the stage for the rest of the album: it’s a perfunctory performance, a 9-to-5 at a job you don’t particularly like but lack the means to quit.

    You can’t blame Oberst for sounding apathetic and exhausted. On Weeds, Oberst dwells on two recent personal losses, his brother’s death and his divorce, and when Oberst’s mind wanders from these miseries, he contemplates the sordid state of current affairs in 2020—and this is even before COVID-19 unleashed a global pandemic. Whereas Oberst could previously sublimate his despair into compelling music, on Weeds he just sounds tired, sad, worn out. And, musically, that’s fine; at this point in his incredible career, Oberst does not owe fans anything. But the recent flurry of positive, even glowing, reviews ranks Weeds as one of the best Bright Eyes albums, even ahead of LIFTED and the mostly brilliant Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, and thus warrants an honest reassessment.

    The songs on Weeds sound consistently listless, though they do otherwise differ in their faults, from being utterly miserable to sloppy to confusing. “Persona Non Grata” is the album’s dirge; it’s an apt time for Oberst’s first use of bagpipes, perhaps, but is so depressive that it becomes a slog. From the sloppy camp is “Just Once in a World,” which undoes all of its building tension with cringe-worthy lyrics at its climax: “I just want to stand by your side / When everyone calls you a lie … Let’s stroll to the edge of the cliff / Stop here and give me a kiss.” These lyrics are “topped” on the egregious “Comet Song”: “You clenched your fist and threw the dish and called me Peter Pan / Your aim’s not very accurate and I thank God for that.” With clunky lyrics, schmaltzy strings, and a pace like molasses, “Comet Song” is the most disappointing closer from any Bright Eyes record, which usually saves one of the album’s best songs for last. And then, of course, there’s “Pan and Broom,” which is more baffling than provocative (to what end does sampling “Hotline Bling” serve?) and is all but unlistenable. It recalls “Theme to Pinata” for being absurd on its own right and incongruous with the rest of the album, but unlike Digital Ash, there is no surrounding brilliance here to conceal this blunder.

    Not every moment is skippable: “Stairwell Song” is a sweet and moving elegy, the first two parts of “To Death’s Heart” are gripping, and there are slick production tricks and lots of musical earworms worked into the album that make moments of it lovely. But as a whole, thisis a joyless record and a joyless listen, one that is unworthy of the moniker of Bright Eyes and the radiant passion that that name has come to signify. Much like a weed, this record should have been trimmed down or, better yet, discarded altogether.

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    Mary V likes this.
  2. tape_deck_heart

    Newbie

    Damn, I've really enjoyed this record but everyone is entitled to their opinion. Granted I'm mostly a fan of his solo stuff and never got into earlier Bright Eyes. Either way, well written review!
     
    Kevstev likes this.
  3. TheoW593

    Regular

    Great review, a bold, well articulated opinion!
     
  4. Kevin, you did not have to go so hard with this one :crylaugh:

    Fantastic review though, very well-written. I've only listened twice and found this mostly uninteresting, but pleasant enough. "Hot Car in the Sun" was pretty easily the standout for me. Who knows if that will change in time.

    Looking forward to reading more from you!
     
    Kevstev likes this.
  5. benschuyler Aug 31, 2020
    (Last edited: Aug 31, 2020)
    benschuyler

    Regular Prestigious

    Yikes. We clearly differ on taste. Personally feel like Digital Ash is his least coherent, most boring release. Cassadaga is far and away my favorite, and Weeds is wonderful. Different strokes I suppose, but I'd caution anyone reading this review to take Kevin's "Stay Away" rating with a VERY large grain of salt.
     
  6. SAB22

    adulting22.bandcamp.com Prestigious

    I enjoyed the record for the most part, I do think it would've benefited from being trimmed down by a tune or two for cohesion's sake. I like it more than The Peoples Key and Cassadaga personally.
     
  7. Dan O'Neill

    Regular

    My tastes for Bright Eyes definitely skew older (Fevers, Lifted, and I’m Wide Awake are my favorites, while I don’t listen to People’s Key or Cassadaga too often), but I really fucking love this album.

    I’ve listened to this a LOT and it’s really doing it for me. I’m surprised to see such a negative take.
     
  8. stars143

    Trusted Supporter

    Surprised to see a more negative than "neutral" take on the album. Been enjoying it more and more with each spin.
     
  9. benschuyler Aug 31, 2020
    (Last edited: Aug 31, 2020)
    benschuyler

    Regular Prestigious

    Yeah, this take is rough. This record IS great. Maybe caught the writer on a bad day.
     
    Walkabout, JohnR831 and Dan O'Neill like this.
  10. That's so funny, Digital Ash is my favourite BE record while Cassadaga (a lovely record) is my least favourite. I actually got into them while listening to The People's Key as well, so I'm an odd fan. Regardless, I'm really enjoying this album without being outright wowed by it. But it always takes me many, many listens to really get what's going on in a BE record. Still, I'd give this record at least a "Recommended" rating.

    I respect the author for giving their opinion though!
     
    benschuyler and Dan O'Neill like this.
  11. bobsheiskawy Aug 31, 2020
    (Last edited: Aug 31, 2020)
    bobsheiskawy

    is it the same for you? Prestigious

    The review reads well, but it's kind of an outlier in terms of opinion, at least from what I've seen in the album forum here and in a few other places. I really disagree about the overall sentiment that there isn't any passion or energy in the vocals. Conor does a lot of different things on the record. "Pan and Broom" is more subdued, but there's plenty of heightened moments ("Just Once In The World," "Mariana Trench," and even "Dance And Sing" and "Persona Non Grata" all have force behind them). I don't think it's out of line with what he's done in the past (particularly if you've kept up with his solo records). It makes sense that there's less of the purer exuberance from the records he made when he was in his early 20s, but he's still doing a lot to shape his sound to match the songs. He's just 40 now, and has different things he's trying to express.

    Also, it's weird that "Mariana Trench" is the featured track for the review and it's not mentioned at all in the written portion (especially given that it's such a great song - maybe it's because it runs counter to a lot of the main criticisms in the review?).

    I think there's so much here that fits in with different parts of the whole Bright Eyes discography, but it's still kind of in its own little world sonically. The record gets better the more you listen to it. There are so many little details, and tons of great lyrics throughout. I haven't really thought about where it ranks among everything else, but it's definitely worth listening to.
     
    JohnR831 and Kevstev like this.
  12. ebenhasfeelings

    Newbie

    Wow. This reads like someone needs something to complain about. Which is odd as there is so many other things to shit on right now.
     
  13. BradBradley

    Regular

    “Much like a weed, this record should have been trimmed down or, better yet, discarded altogether.” Damn. Whether you agree with the review or not - GOT EM.
     
  14. arewehavingfunyet

    Trusted

    I feel very bad for you if you think any moment on this record is "skippable"
     
  15. Donnie Ruth

    Trusted Supporter

    It’s crazy because as somebody who never really was a massive Bright Eyes fan ... I would argue this album may land very, very high on my AOTY list. I can’t stop replaying it and love nearly everything about this. It scratches every itch I was needing.

    Despite disagreeing mostly with some of your opinions on it, I did enjoy the review!
     
  16. WasEmoRocknowImjustold

    Not newbie, I think

    It's not his best but it's enjoyable for any Bright Eyes fan. Review makes it sound like trash and it's not. With so many trash lyricists out there Conor being Conor still flies above most.
     
  17. notalonerecords

    Newbie

    I don’t think I’ve ever read an ap.net or chorus review that has ever gotten it so wrong before now.
     
  18. There's been plenty of positive press about this album, why can't one of our writers write a thorough take that disagrees? Why take it so personally?
     
  19. Brother Beck

    Trusted Supporter

    This is a very well written review with a take on the album that I just so happen to almost entirely disagree with. I personally found this album to be consistently great with the last trio of songs reaching masterpiece territory, but I still enjoyed reading this review a lot. Well done.
     
  20. Heh. I can name literally dozens after bringing back over a hundred old reviews at this point that are now even more hilariously wrong in hindsight. Even some the authors wish they could take back and don’t agree with anymore. (Including some I’ve written.)
     
  21. Serenity Now

    deliver us from e-mail Supporter

    Pan & Broom hits if you listen during the middle of another work-from-home day during a global pandemic after maybe one early cocktail while you’re still in your pajamas...or so I’m told
     
    Frank Lapidus and Kevstev like this.
  22. AsfAstAswegofar

    Regular

    YeH, that’s a yikes from me dog.

    this album is pretty incredible.

    mans cassadaga is fucking gold, some of his best lyrics.

    but hey, that’s just like my opinion man
     
    ChaseTx, sosplatano and JohnR831 like this.
  23. arewehavingfunyet

    Trusted

    Also completely misses the point of “dance & sing”
     
    JohnR831 likes this.
  24. notalonerecords

    Newbie

    Music is subjective. It’s supposed to be liked or hated, interpreted differently, some albums once disliked can grow on you (it’s the best when that happens). The special thing about listening to an album for the first time is that it can mean so many different things to so many people. I am appreciative of the community you created to discuss this in. I too can name dozens of reviews that have missed the mark (some written by you :)), as well as ones that are dead on (also some that were written by you)... but all I’m saying is this one missed it far more than any others I have read on this site.
     
    ebenhasfeelings and JohnR831 like this.
  25. JohnR831

    Regular

    Wow. I’ve been visiting this site regularly since the ap.net days, and this is one of the few times I’ve been genuinely disappointed in the site. The album certainly took me several listens to get into, and once it clicked, it really clicked. An opinion is an opinion, but the rating seems extra harsh. While it’s subjective, when you look at Metacritic (the review aggregator), the album has universal acclaim overall. Also, you got the album name wrong.