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Bright Eyes at the end of the world again
After a debilitating few years away, Conor Oberst reunites with Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott for an album of eulogies, contradictions, and apocalyptic visions.
Bright Eyes at the end of the world again Shawn Brackbill  

This is not Conor Oberst’s first apocalypse. Eighteen years ago he sang about the end of the universe, a day when there wouldn’t be a moon or sun, when everything would just “go black, go back to the way it was before.” Three years later he saw slaughter in the desert, a sinking ship, a pop song screaming from his alarm and interrupting his fever dreams. Two more years passed and there was Oberst again, unkempt black hair rustling around the collar of his flannel shirt, telling a millions-strong late-night audience about a graffitied girl “standing in the ashes at the end of the world” as time swept at her from all angles. “History bows and it steps aside / In the jungle there's columns of purple light,” he concluded on The People’s Key, his eighth album with Bright Eyes and last under that name for almost a decade. “We're starting over / We’re starting over / We’re starting.”

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Today, in the backyard of his Los Angeles home, the 40-year-old Oberst holds a cigarette between his painted black fingernails and talks into his laptop about the years that led up to Bright Eyes’ new album, Down in the Weeds, Where The World Once Was. “A lot of things transpired, and a lot of it was pretty traumatic,” he says. “Definitely not the happiest years of my life.” He has never made a habit of spilling his guts to reporters or fans, but some of the crises that befell him in the middle of the last decade were, often uncomfortably, public. A woman accused him of rape in 2014, but later admitted that her story was “100% false.” The incident had a profound psychological effect on Oberst, who had, even at the best of times, worried too intensely about the way that others perceived him. He decided to press on with his plans to release an album and hit the road with his punk band, Desaparecidos, the next year, but that tour was cut short when he was hospitalized with "laryngitis, anxiety, and exhaustion.”

The next November, his brother, Matt, was found dead at his home in Cary, North Carolina. He was 42. In an uncharacteristically forthright interview with Dan Ozzi for Noisey the next year, Oberst said that Matt “basically fucking drank himself to death," before shuffling the conversation forward and emphasizing that everyone has shit to deal with, that he wasn’t looking for any special sympathy. “We’re never going to understand what it's like to be a kid in Syria, getting fucking chemical bombed and watching their family die,” he said.

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Oberst remembers that day and that conversation. “I was definitely in not a good mindset at all,” he tells me, palm fronds swaying in the Los Angeles afternoon at his back. “I guess he caught me on a day where I just didn't really give a fuck. I remember feeling bad afterwards when I had described the way my brother passed away, not thinking about[...] my niece and nephew. They're definitely old enough to read an article.” He later found out that he might have misread the situation, too. “It's still a bit of a mystery, because he just stopped breathing in his sleep. It was kind of inconclusive. He had sleep apnea and he obviously struggled with addiction, but I came to find out it wasn't quite as clear cut as I made it seem.”

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I suggest his response in the Noisey interview sounded like that of someone who was not just bereaved, but angry at being left behind. “I think that's fair,” he says. “I think grieving is a strange thing; I think it comes in a lot of different forms.” Besides, his emotions were still raw. “There tends to be a delayed reaction where, if I have some kind of life experience that affects me, it often takes a few years before it starts to show up in my songs. It has to live in my subconscious for enough time.”

His subconscious must have been running out of space. It was around the time of that interview, just a few months on from the release of his last solo album Salutations, that Oberst and his wife of seven years started to separate. Whatever might have seemed certain and stable in the wake of The People’s Key, both in Oberst’s head and the world outside, was now in chaos.

Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, due out on August 21 on Dead Oceans, is every bit as apocalyptic as that title suggests. Nate Walcott and Mike Mogis, the only other core members of a group that’s otherwise rotated its cast for decades, strike up funereal bagpipes, portentous orchestras, and lonesome horns as Oberst sings about a world in flames. But, as is so often the case for Oberst, the album fidgets in the space between the personal and political, taking a holistic, occasionally even biblical, approach to tragedy. Bright Eyes’ ninth album is dedicated to Matt Oberst, and its songs are defined by loss, absence, and grief.

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It’s also an album that — in flashes, like smiles in the middle of a eulogy — seems intent on resilience. ”I’ll grieve / What I have lost / Forgive the firing squad / How imperfect life can be,” Oberst sings at the top of the album. “Now all I can do / Is just dance on through.”

It’s a thread of hope pulled in part from a shared history, Oberst says: “It felt like it was time to go back to home base, go back to where you feel the safest and the most supported.” In that sense, a Bright Eyes reunion was inevitable. They’d remained close in the years after The People’s Key. Walcott and Mogis worked together on the soundtrack to Josh Boone’s 2014 film The Fault In Our Stars, and Mogis mixed Oberst’s worryingly plaintive 2016 LP Ruminations. They made the decision to work together as a unit again at a Christmas party Walcott threw in 2017; Oberst had raised the idea that night, and, rather than dwelling on the topic, they FaceTimed Mogis from the bathroom to get an answer right away.

It’s not hard to see why Mogis so emphatically agreed. He first met a 14-year-old Oberst in 1994, inside a dorm room at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Mogis was so impressed with the breadth of this precocious kid’s music that he agreed to mix what would become Bright Eyes’ debut album, A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997. Mogis had also co-founded Saddle Creek, the Omaha-based label that became synonymous with Bright Eyes, with the middle Oberst brother, Justin. Mogis joined what was now a band, not a solo project, as a full member for 1998’s Letting Off the Happiness. He never left. Mogis has produced albums for Dev Hynes (as Lightspeed Champion) and Rilo Kiley, among others, but Bright Eyes has always been his home.

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The call from Walcott’s bathroom also came at a tumultuous time in Mogis’s life. “A lot of things started to go south for me, on a personal level, starting early 2017,” he tells me on a call from his studio in Omaha. Mogis had started to talk about divorce with his wife of 23 years, and he had to break that news to his two daughters, the youngest of whom was nine at the time. He chokes up briefly while thinking about that conversation now. “Just how painful that was... I don't know.”

The thought of returning to Bright Eyes was a balm. “It was just so comfortable in a time where everything felt so uncomfortable. That was really something I needed[...] When everything else in your life is going sideways, it's nice to have something comforting to lean back on.”

Walcott was more than ready to bring the project back as well. His daughter had been born in the spring of 2016, and he’d resolved to retire from touring. But when his friend Josh Klinghoffer called and asked Walcott if he’d like to join the Red Hot Chili Peppers as a keys player as they toured their new album The Getaway, he couldn’t turn down the opportunity. He played a couple of shows with the funk-rock stalwarts, figuring there was no chance of the arrangement sticking, but he ended up staying on the road with them for a year and a half. Meanwhile, he and his wife had purchased “to say the least, a fixer-upper of a house,” and renovations dragged on far longer than expected. Walcott would only be back in L.A. for a few days at a time between tour runs, and his family was constantly between homes anyway.

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The opportunity to work with Oberst and Mogis again offered some long-term respite at the end of a chaotic run. And it helped knowing that Oberst wanted the process to be fully collaborative from the outset. Working on the basis that, in Walcott's words, “a harmonic structure that he's not as familiar with can propel the song and the melodies in a new direction,” the trio played with new chord progressions or “harmonic palettes” before Oberst set about writing in earnest. The trick, Walcott says, was finding “sweet spots” — chord progressions and moods that might nudge Oberst into fresh territory without sending him off into completely alien surroundings.

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It’s clear that Oberst was exploring new melodic ground, particularly on Down in the Weeds’ more melancholy sounding songs: singles “One and Done” and “Persona Non Grata,” and the staggering “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts),” which restlessly vacillates between questions and resolutions. Occasionally there’s an unexpected chord in the middle of a familiar progression — as there is on the chorus of “Calais to Dover” — exposing new spaces for Oberst to howl into. With no pressure and little in the way of deadlines, among friends that feel like family, the trio felt comfortable taking those risks.

But Walcott is careful to stress that there was more to the Bright Eyes reunion than just convenient timing. “I would hesitate to say that, for me personally, reuniting with Conor and Mike and working on the record was a matter of practicality — but rather a much needed expelling of creative energy with dear friends at a time when my soul deeply needed it, for a variety of reasons,” he wrote in a text message a few hours after we last spoke on the phone.

On that last call, Walcott had brought up Thelonious Monk’s “Ugly Beauty,” a 10-minute song that still stands as the only waltz that the groundbreaking jazz pianist ever composed. Walcott had been trying to discuss the palette that the trio wanted to use, but color wouldn’t suffice. “I can't tell you exactly how the chords on ‘One and Done’ are an expression of anything, but there's this sort of intuitive relationship that we have [and], ultimately, it's not something that can really be explained,” he said. “It's just coming from a desire to make something beautiful for the world, even if it does have this apocalyptic feel.”

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He explained the idea further via text. “When working on the opening piece, ‘Pageturner’s Rag,’ which morphs into something decidedly not rag-timey by the end of the piece, I was deeply influenced by Alban Berg’s first piano sonata and some of [Arnold] Schoenberg’s solo piano pieces,” he wrote. “For me at the time [these] were general guideposts throughout our process, albeit very indirectly at times, for this sound of ‘ugly beauty,’ which I found so captivating in the midst of the current state of affairs in our world.”

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In May 2005, Oberst played a song called “When The President Talks To God” on Leno. Stetson on his head, studs on his shirt, spotlight on him and his acoustic guitar, he spat every lyric out with contempt over a stabbed 12-bar blues: “When the President talks to God, are the conversations brief or long? / Does he ask to rape our womens’ rights, or send poor farm kids off to die? Does God suggest an oil hike?” Here was a kid in his mid-20s, dubbed “the new Bob Dylan” (though the tag was always in quotation marks, credited to faceless critics but never any lone source), thrust towards the edge of the mainstream. There was an infectious, righteous conviction to his delivery. “We’d sing as loud and aggressive as we could to get people to listen to it,” he said of the development of his singing voice in an interview with The New Yorker around the time. “It was exaggerated — we put everything we had out there, totally overdoing it every time and having no concept of subtlety.”

That conviction hasn’t faded over the years, and, on record, his voice can still rise to the drama that it hit on Bright Eyes’ purgative 2002 LP Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. But in conversation he’s less bitter and self-deprecating than he seemed in early interviews. When I remind him of an off-hand comment he made years ago in Spin about the world being better off without humans, he weighs up the idea. “If you're talking on a purely environmental level, it's kind of indisputable that humans have caused the most incredible damage compared to any other species,” he says.

But there’s a revolution happening outside, and he’s no nihilist: “The momentum behind a movement towards racial justice and more equitable policing... I've never seen this amount of a sustained attention span and pressure in my life to make a change.” Xenophobia, nationalism, climate change, and the malignancy in the White House all terrify him, but Oberst — who campaigned for Barack Obama in 2008, supported Bernie Sanders in 2016, and insists that dispensing with Donald Trump is the only defensible path in 2020 — still believes that the arc of history bends towards justice, however slowly. Hopefully. At least today. “If you go back a couple hundred years, it was certainly worse,” he says. “Maybe in a couple of hundred more, it'll be better.”

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New single “Mariana Trench” — a liquid song lavished with synths and a bassline that, like six others on Down in the Weeds, was recorded by Flea — is as close as Bright Eyes get to a political song this time around. Oberst sings about a “market crash” and a “wiretap,” the “ever-widening money trail” and “dehumanizing entities,” freeways crumbling “when the big one hits.” This time around, though, Oberst isn’t content to play the embittered, omniscient narrator: “A coward is / What a coward does / I suppose maybe I always was / But I’m sick of it / I’ve had enough / And now I’m ready for the war.” In the end, he seems to be singing to himself: “Look hard for a harder something to sacrifice.” He doubles down on that in conversation: “That's what it takes, you know? Really it comes down to individuals and what you're willing to stick your neck out for and how far you're willing to go for other people and for a future that you want to see realized.”

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I ask Oberst about “Just Once In The World,” which, between bouts of ecstatic proclamations, reads like the meeting point between a doom-laden love song and a statement of intent: “So if it’s time let’s go together / I will be your ballast now / Let’s sail into that stormy weather / No matter how it turns out.” Again, Oberst sees this as an unavoidable truth about the world. “Those are kind of our choices — to collectively and personally roll up our sleeves and try to do something about everything that's happening, or retreat into self-destruction and insanity,” he says. “I think both of those compulsions are alive and well inside of me.”

Those dueling instincts exist in every part of his life. When I ask Mogis if he knew where his friend’s head was when they talked about writing new Bright Eyes music, he says that Oberst isn’t always easy to read. “He never makes anything terribly obvious, but there's times where you know because he just reaches out,” he says before letting a silence hang over the line for a few seconds. “Yeah... it felt like he talked about suicide and wanting to die a little bit too much.”

Oberst spontaneously brings the topic up when we talk as well. “I find as I get older, I have competing feelings,” he says. “On a good day I think my life's coming together, I'm hopefully wiser, I'm hopefully headed in some kind of direction towards peace or some kind of contentment that I've never really totally had. I think that's a dynamic of aging and I've talked to friends that are a lot older than me.” He brings up his late friend Gary Burden, who designed some of the most iconic album covers in history and died in 2018, at 84 years old. “He always had friends, he had friends of all ages and he always had a zest for life that I really looked up to, and he did until the day he died.”

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On other days, though, that same desire for happiness scares him: “I think other people, as they age, things just start to unravel, and it becomes more claustrophobic to be in your body. People that are older and decide to end their life, like Anthony Bourdain or Robin Williams or Hunter S. Thompson. [These are] people I look up to that I think made a lot of amazing contributions to the world, and then at some point just hung up the hat and said, ‘Show me the door, I'm out of here.’ To me, that's terrifying, almost beyond tragic, because you think that people like that would have had life figured out by then.”

Occasionally you have to search for the joy on Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was. Sometimes the agony that Oberst still feels at losing his brother seeps into the dissolution of his marriage; other times the agony is set apart, like crude oil on water. On “Pageturner’s Rag,” Corina Figueroa Escamilla, Oberst’s now-ex-wife, reads the introduction in Spanish, breaking into English only to announce “your most vivid nightmares.” As the song decays and drifts away from rag-time, Conor’s mother, Nancy, starts to talk. First it seems she’s talking about a funeral, but the tape warps again and she’s surrounded by silence. “We have to hold on. We have to hold on,” she says carefully before the tape trips once more, her voice more buoyant now as she talks about the best roses to buy at the market. “When we went back to Cary, and we always go by Matty’s old house, the rosebush was gone. We go back, the first time, the house looks great, and they sell it. The next time we go back and drive by” — she claps and clearly begins to beam — “the rosebush was growing in the same spot again!”

Walcott says he never discussed “Ugly Beauty” with Oberst or Mogis, but the contradiction lives inside Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was: a forgiven firing squad, a readiness for war, a reborn rosebush on a front lawn in Cary, North Carolina. The hope is that Oberst will find happiness in those contradictions too, eventually.

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“I definitely think maybe there's a really peaceful, amazing future ahead of me, and maybe there's not,” he says. “I don't think I'll know until I get there.”

Bright Eyes at the end of the world again