Nobody gets good news anymore because, frankly, there’s no good news to get, but if you did get good news, not a soul in the world would blame you for screaming. So when Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst croons, “I screamed when I realized what was happening / That I had good news” on “Dance and Sing,” the second track from the Americana-emo three-piece’s long-awaited, decade-in-the-making record, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, he’s crooning about the ultimate fantasy in 2020: The receipt of happy tidings in a decidedly unhappy moment.
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was reflects the fetid sump of 2020 in nearly every way possible, but the accidental contextual honesty of this particular line hits with blunt force sentiment. Like much of the year’s popular culture—whether it’s music, films, TV shows or books —any reflections of global calamity and national collapse seen in Oberst’s reunion with Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott are unintended, in the sense that none of them writes music with a crystal ball and thus could not have foreseen the circus that is American society under duress from a viral outbreak in the midst of authoritarian governance. Even in a sunnier environment, these 14 tracks would likely mirror at least a portion of prevailing moods and attitudes, because that’s what art does. But as events stand, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was exhibits a degree of prescience best described as unnerving.
It’s not that Oberst, Mogis and Walcott combine into one Nostradamus, really. It’s more that together, they capture the feeling of living under unlivable circumstances while the people charged with keeping the planet spinning blithely throw their hands up in the air. “Just whistle a tune,” sings Oberst on “Pan and Broom,” “While you’re digging a grave / on a hot afternoon,” as if there’s no other recourse for watching mankind wither and burn other than to find a nice spot in the earth to heave your carcass. Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is stuffed with images and musings on this level, which makes sense given that the last nine years and change did Oberst dirty between loss and separation. If you woke up in 2017 divorced and deprived of your older brother, you’d probably take every day as one step toward the end times, too.
Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is a piece about Armageddon. “Pan and Broom” contains some of the record’s more on-the-nose descriptions of doom, “This world went down in flames and manmade caves” being most fitting for Bright Eyes listeners slumming it in America, where democracy has devolved into a tribalist society where one’s clan is identified through the emojis used to pad their Twitter handles, but Oberst’s lyrics apply no matter where you call home. “Mariana Trench,” for instance, goes broad in its chorus, putting the audience on watch for the “plainclothes,” for the wiretap, for the money trail: All the signifiers of corrupt officials and the shady G-men they employ to cover their asses.
The music here represents apocalypse of a personal nature, too, which is probably why Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was reads so distinctly as an album for 2020: Occasions as momentous and painful as the end of a relationship or the passing of a loved one have a way of bringing the whole planet crashing down on one’s head. Oberst invokes his marriage and his brother directly, and takes a beat on “Forced Convalescence” to freak out about getting older, the worst punishment a musician who built a career plumbing the depths of male teenage angst could suffer. “Catastrophizing my birthday,” Oberst laments, “Turning forty / Ending up like everyone.” Housework, the bank, the church: They’re pounding on his door as age creeps up on him. No wonder Bright Eyes’ outlook hasn’t brightened any in the last nine years. Getting older is a drag.
But one man’s king bummer is another man’s inspiration, and Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is definitely inspired. This album is for Bright Eyes what Father of the Bride was to Vampire Weekend, a towering, multilayered, ambitious expansion of the band’s aesthetic conducted through a frank reexamination of its character. Oberst, Mogis and Walcott bring gospel choir, orchestral proclamations, brass howls, bossa nova drum beats and countless other influences to the record from track to track, increasing its scale of its sound and thus the scope of its meaning at the same time. Hopelessness rarely sounds this complex. Today, complex hopelessness may be the last thing anyone wants to put into their ears on purpose, but by cycling through so many varied musical styles in the pursuit of bristling self-reflection, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was offers an easy way through the endless morass of bad headlines and worse outcomes: Dance and sing.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.