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Bright Eyes takes a new direction with a bit of nostalgia

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Aug. 21 (UPI) — Bright Eyes is back with Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, their first new album in nearly 10 years, and the venerated indie rock band’s three core members said the record is designed to be a mix of the new and the familiar.

Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was marks Bright Eyes’ first album since 2011’s The People’s Key, and the band’s core members — singer/guitarist Conor Oberst, composer/keyboardist Nate Walcott and multi-instrumentalist/producer Mike Mogis — told UPI in a recent interview that their return to the studio was inspired by their experiences and the state of the world.

“Living in Trump’s America has felt extremely horrible and oppressive,” Oberst said. “Not that he has anything to do with our record, and I’m happy to say that, there’s nothing really overly political in it.

“I just think there’s been a general climate of despair all around, even before the pandemic, and I think that coupled with different things that we’ve experienced in our lives, personally, I think we all felt like it would be a good time to bring it all back home.”

Seeking comfort

Oberst and his bandmates agreed returning “home” to the studio offered a unique sense of comfort both from the state of the world and their personal tribulations, including separations, death of loved ones and the pressures of other professional pursuits.

“The enjoyment working with these guys is on a level I don’t get elsewhere,” Mogis said. “[It’s] just being able to share ideas and have them be met with open arms, even your wildest craziest ideas. It’s fun.”

Oberst’s work during the Bright Eyes hiatus included multiple solo albums and 2019’s self-titled album, Better Oblivion Community Center, a collaboration with fellow indie rocker Phoebe Bridgers, while Walcott recently went on tour as the keyboard, piano and trumpet player for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Mogis has remained active as a producer for indie bands and has collaborated with Walcott on film scores. including 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars.

The three men agreed recording with Bright Eyes is uniquely comfortable due to their shared history as musicians and friends, as well as the collaborative approach they take to crafting a record.

“We all have to be equally happy with the result of the finished record, so what you’re hearing is sort of the combination of our three musical minds, if you will, all swirled together,” Oberst said.

Walcott described the process as “uniquely collaborative in a deep way.”

“When we are recording and making a record, we’re kind of building this thing together from the ground up. And I don’t really have any other projects in my life that are nearly as deeply collaborative in that sense,” he said.

“A little bit of nostalgia”

The two decades of Bright Eyes’ history are apparent in Down in the Weeds, which features what Mogis described as “touchstones to other records that we had made in the past” that were intentionally designed to give the record “a little bit of nostalgia.”

Familiar elements of the music include Mogis’ use of a hammered dulcimer and Walcott’s use of simple melodies and low-fi elements in his arrangements that recall the band’s work on early albums like Fevers and Mirrors (2000) and Letting Off the Happiness (1998).

While the nostalgic elements of the record were intentional, the musicians said they also were consciously working to ensure Down in the Weeds had its own, unique sound.

“It felt like we were deliberately going in a new direction, but also deliberately capturing some sounds that were very familiar from all the previous records. So with that intention, I don’t think any of us were feeling like we were just going to make the same record as last time,” Walcott said.

The new elements on the record include incorporating a gospel choir on the track “Forced Convalescence” and bagpipes featuring in “Persona Non Grata,” the first single off Down in the Weeds. The album also features the work of Jon Theodore (Queens of the Stone Age) on drums and Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers) on bass.

“There were some new people at the table, so I think that made it exciting and kind of something we had never done before,” Oberst said. “We had some bagpipes, we had some choirs, and some things that were new, so that was good, to try new things among all the nostalgia.”

The mixing of elements led to some surprising results: “I never thought we would have slap bass on a record. That was unexpected,” Oberst said.

Walcott added: “Although we did hire Flea, so the odds of having slap bass went up a bit.”

Finding clarity

Oberst’s lyrics often deal apocalyptic imagery — “Found the throughline//For all humankind//If given the time//They’ll blow up or walk on the moon//It’s just what they do,” he opines in the opening lines of “Just Once in The World” — but the grand-scale disasters can serve as metaphors for a more personal sense of loss.

Oberst’s older brother, Matthew, died in 2016, and the following year, the singer separated from Figueroa Escamilla, his wife of seven years — although the two remain close friends and Escamilla’s voice appears on the new album’s opening track, “Pageturner’s Rag.”

The singer said turning the events of his life into music brings him more clarity than it does catharsis.

“I think a lot of people will talk about that kind of thing as like, ‘Oh that must be really cathartic,’ but I don’t really feel that way, it doesn’t feel particularly cathartic to me. It just feels like maybe there’s a little more clarity,” he said.

Oberst said that while making music gives him “a little more understanding” about his emotional experiences, there’s “a delay period” of sometimes years between when an event occurs and when it serves as the inspiration for a song.

“It’s kind of got to live inside your head for a while before it magically appears in a song. Most of the time, I don’t know what I’m going to write about until I’m already writing about it,” he said.

A planned tour in support of Down in the Weeds, which was to have kicked off May 14 in Spokane, Wash., was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Band members said they are looking forward to being able to gather again to play live shows and make new music.

Oberst said life during the pandemic has left him feeling “very unmotivated” musically, while Walcott and Mogis have been working together on the score for the upcoming miniseries adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand — which is appropriately, as Walcott put it, “a TV show about a plague.”

Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is out Friday from record label Dead Oceans.

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