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Bright Eyes’ Summertime Sadness - The New York Times

More than half his life ago, when he was 19, Conor Oberst and his band Bright Eyes released their breakout album, the intricately morose “Fevers and Mirrors.” Already a veteran of several Omaha bands, he had been putting out music since he was 13 — one of those impressive if slightly unsettling talents that gets described as a “wunderkind.” Oberst wrote like a punk-rock Rimbaud and sang like he was perpetually on the verge of sobbing. Parents wondered why he sounded like that; a certain kind of depressed, literate adolescent saw him as a prophet.

“This room seems even smaller now than I remember it, hung mirrors on the walls and the ceiling,” Oberst, now 40, sings on “One and Done” from “Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was,” the new Bright Eyes album — the band’s 10th and first after a nine-year hiatus. The song, like much of this record, is about returning home and assessing the damage: The aching chasm of what is now missing, and the strange, unexpected spoils of what still remains.

In his earlier music, Oberst wrote about fractured fairy-tale characters to match the heightened emotions of his singing: a mysterious but doomed lover named Arienette; a baby brother named Padraic who drowned in a bathtub. As he matured as a songwriter, though, he began to rely less on macabre invention and more on gimlet-eyed observation.

What allowed him evolve into an artistic adulthood more successfully than most of his perpetual-adolescent emo peers was the way he continuously widened his aperture beyond just heartbreak and teen angst to interrogate the bigger picture of why, exactly, he was so sad. By “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” in 2005, he had arrived at a compelling answer: Because he was a human being at the dawn of the 21st century, living in America.

Oberst evolved into a W.-Bush-era bard of personal politics, but — whether an act of self-sabotage, artistic integrity, or a little bit of both — he also never quite grew out of the more polarizing tendencies of his music: the suicidal imagery, the general sense of maximalist excess, the tantrum-hoarse vocals. He gradually settled into becoming a street-preaching curmudgeon of the Anthropocene, a role he easily picks up on “Down in the Weeds.”

“Found the through line for all humankind,” he declares over a strummed acoustic guitar at the beginning of the swaying dirge “Just Once in the World.” “If given the time, they’ll blow up or walk on the moon — it’s just what they do.” Lyrics that might have branded him a nihilist 15 years ago now, in the age of climate doom, ring with realism: “Look now as the crumbling 405 falls down, oh when the big one hits,” he sings on “Mariana Trench,” which pairs a driving tempo and hummable melody with visions of impending apocalypse.

But Oberst has just as much catastrophe to explore on a more intimate scale. He’s endured a particularly rough stretch in the past few years: He had a brain cyst removed, he got divorced, and, in 2016, his older brother Matthew — one of the people who’d first inspired him to make music — died suddenly in his sleep at 42. He seems to be the subject of one of the most affecting tracks on this album, “Stairwell Song,” an openhearted elegy with an ever-intensifying melody. “Nothing changed, you just packed your things one day,” Oberst sings at the end. “Didn’t bother to explain what happened, you like cinematic endings.” And with that cue, the producer Mike Mogis and the arranger and pianist Nate Walcott play him out in style with a sweeping orchestral movement.

With their shape-shifting, collagelike arrangements, Bright Eyes’ instrumentalism often approximates some sort of sonic primordial ooze. Found sounds and out-of-context conversations are the band’s signatures: The opening number, “Pageturner’s Rag,” layers Walcott’s ragtime piano beneath snippets of Oberst, his mother and his ex-wife chatting while on mushrooms together (imagine!). Sometimes it works (the sudden intrusion of bagpipes on “Persona Non Grata”); sometimes it’s all a bit too much and the songs feel excessively crowded.

But many of the most powerful moments on this record are uncharacteristically straightforward. “Hot Car in the Sun” is one of the saddest Bright Eyes songs in ages, because its sadness comes not from macabre imagination but from vivid banality. “Chopped celery and made the soup, didn’t have much else to do,” Oberst sings plaintively. “I was dreaming of my ex-wife’s face.” There is something wonderfully disarming about hearing the word “ex-wife” in a Bright Eyes song. Her presence and eventual absence leads Oberst, as he puts it in the closing “Comet Song,” to “vacuum up all of the fairy dust.” Earlier in the song, during an argument, she’d insulted him by calling him Peter Pan.

But Oberst has heard that one before; he’s survived much worse. What saves “Down in the Weeds” from despair is its stance of battered optimism: “This world is waving goodbye, so cut a rug, let’s throw a party,” Oberst sings with a shrug. And while it can’t quite match the potency of their mid-aughts records, “Weeds” is certainly a more festive victory lap for Bright Eyes than the underwhelming, supposedly final 2011 album “The People’s Key.”

There’s no better time for a parade: In the past few years, Oberst’s influence has crystallized in a new generation. He’s collaborated with Phoebe Bridgers and been sampled by Young Thug; the emo-rap warbler Post Malone recently admitted a habit of “drinking and crying my [expletive] eyes out” to “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.” Oberst is still sometimes written off as death-obsessed, but maybe his most subversive act has been, all these years, keeping some uncompromisingly youthful part of himself alive.

Bright Eyes
“Down in the Weeds Where the World Once Was”
(Dead Oceans)

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