If, like yours truly, you navigated the ‘00s through the impaired vision of a thick fringe covering one eye, you may never have seen this day coming. But here we are: your folk emo pin-up Conor Oberst has finally been accepted as a prophet, and (dare we say it?) is now actually kinda cool. The geeks have inherited the earth.
Millennial icons Matty Healy of The 1975 and Phoebe Bridgers have brought Oberst’s band Bright Eyes to a new audience by singing his praises as a sad poet influence. The latter even went the extra mile with by collaborating when him on their resplendent Better Oblivion Community Center record last year. The world is hungry for ‘Down In The Weeds Where The World Once Was’.
This is especially true given that Bright Eyes have taken nearly a decade off. In the meantime Oberst dropped five solo albums and a record with post-hardcore side project Desaparecidos. He hadn’t worked with his old bandmates Nate Walcott and Mike Mogis since 2011’s underrated ‘The People’s Key’; on 10th album ‘Down In The Woods’, the three amigos sound rejuvenated but still familiar.
Opener ‘Pageturner’s Rag’ is the usual deliciously pretentious atmospheric spoken word amuse-bouche that starts most Bright Eyes records; this time it’s some bilingual Spanish and English conversations about flowers over the sounds of static and lounge jazz. They’re back, baby!
‘Dance And Sing’ does what it says on the tin, swaying with the folky opulence last heard on 2007’s ‘Cassadaga’, as Oberst sets the tone of persevering through the shitty times: “Gotta keep on going like it ain’t the end / Gotta change like you’re life’s depending on it”. You can feel that he means it.
Naysayers may have scoffed at the ‘21st Century Bob Dylan’ tag when it was first applied to Oberst, but his maturity and depth can’t be denied here. In recent years, the musician has lost his brother and his marriage. You feel that weight in the bagpipe dirge (yes, really) of ‘Persona Non Grata’, when he asks “Oh, how can we reconcile?”, and on the theatrical waltz of ‘One And Done’, where he weighs up time, loss and ageing: “This fleeting feeling is infinite.”
As with the best of Bright Eyes, there’s a bittersweet meeting of macabre words and folky tunefulness. There’s a bubbling new wave lightness to ‘Mariana Trench’, as Oberst reflects a society “where selfishness is currency – people spend more than they make”. Yet the real highlight arrives when he captures a certain Anglo-melancholy on the UK-referencing break-up song ‘Calais To Dover”, traversing a nauseating ferry ride and some sad English scenes, before erupting to an epic and surprising Americana wig-out.
‘Pan And Broom’ exudes synthy sweetness as Oberst laments a life that “went down the drain of rainy days”. And who else could bring a heavenly choral release to a track called ‘Forced Convalescence’? Latter-day Beatles-style closer ‘Comet Song’, with its orchestral grace, boasts widescreen scope, as Oberst reflects on a doomed relationship, before he howls, devastatingly: “You’re approaching even as you disappear”.