On “Calais to Dover,” the penultimate track on Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, Conor Oberst and company erupt into a huge, catchy, and devastating chorus, one that has all the trademarks of vintage Bright Eyes. There’s Oberst’s famously clever wordplay, where he examines his paralysis (“nothing is changing”) amidst a divorce (“everything’s changing”) while subtly playing with the expression “to state the obvious,” which, in its final declaration, closes the song like a gut-punch. Then there’s Oberst’s distinctively tremulous, emotive voice and the frantic energy that carries it; here Oberst’s trembling words pour out of him and, by the end of the song, he abandons words altogether and expresses his grief through a primal wail. And then there’s the glorious instrumentation, where a rush of pianos and shimmering guitars make the song feel massive—as they swell, it’s hard not to be swept up by the grandeur of the music and then, as Oberst’s clear vocals come into focus, be crushed by his sadness. The song encapsulates so much of the appeal of Bright Eyes: there’s often a simultaneous joy and pain in listening, as the group pulls you into their rich sonic world and then leaves you vulnerable to Oberst’s poignant lyrics. For these reasons, “Calais” is the standout to Weeds and one of the best Bright Eyes songs of the past 15 years. It’s also the album’s sole takeaway.
With its lavish production and alt-country leanings, Weeds sounds a lot like the first half of 2007’s Cassadaga, which featured a lead singer who, for the first time in his career, occasionally sounded disinterested. From that record, “Classic Cars” was its nadir (and also the transition into the latter half of the album, which features some actual classics); Oberst’s urgency was absent, so the stakes of the song felt nonexistent. Some of 2011’s The People’s Key felt like a corrective course, with Oberst singing his heart out on songs like “Shell Games” and “Jejune Stars,” and when his fraying voice couldn’t hit all the high notes, like on the gorgeous “Beginner’s Mind,” he employed vocal effects to help him ascend to those heights. Those songs proved that an animated Oberst was still a commanding lead vocalist, whose music, particularly with multi-instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott beside him, could be both arresting and transcendent.
But, nine years later, Oberst’s passion and energy are hard to find on the dismal Weeds. Just compare “Dance and Sing,” the second song (after the skip-it-or-fast-forward introduction) from Weeds, with “Method Acting,” the second song from LIFTED. On “Method,” Oberst is brimming with energy, as he gasps and shouts and sings and screams, his voice as intense as the song’s relentless, pounding marching drums. Oberst truly sounds alive with such possibilities, and there’s no doubting him when he announces “all I know is I feel better when I sing”; his music affirms it. On “Dance and Sing,” by contrast, Oberst carries the country drawl characteristic of much of his post-2005 work, sounding downright conversational, like he’s reciting a poem in 4/4. The music follows suit, with a beat that’s suitable for gently nodding your head and tapping your toes—a fitting sound, I suppose, to Oberst’s defeated admission, “all I can do / is just dance on through / and sing.” Whereas on “Method Acting” Oberst sings because “burdens are lifted from me,” on “Dance and Sing” our narrator admits that singing is just his job—not a passion or a therapy but a profession. Oberst’s confession sets the stage for the rest of the album: it’s a perfunctory performance, a 9-to-5 at a job you don’t particularly like but lack the means to quit.
You can’t blame Oberst for sounding apathetic and exhausted. On Weeds, Oberst dwells on two recent personal losses, his brother’s death and his divorce, and when Oberst’s mind wanders from these miseries, he contemplates the sordid state of current affairs in 2020—and this is even before COVID-19 unleashed a global pandemic. Whereas Oberst could previously sublimate his despair into compelling music, on Weeds he just sounds tired, sad, worn out. And, musically, that’s fine; at this point in his incredible career, Oberst does not owe fans anything. But the recent flurry of positive, even glowing, reviews ranks Weeds as one of the best Bright Eyes albums, even ahead of LIFTED and the mostly brilliant Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, and thus warrants an honest reassessment.
The songs on Weeds sound consistently listless, though they do otherwise differ in their faults, from being utterly miserable to sloppy to confusing. “Persona Non Grata” is the album’s dirge; it’s an apt time for Oberst’s first use of bagpipes, perhaps, but is so depressive that it becomes a slog. From the sloppy camp is “Just Once in a World,” which undoes all of its building tension with cringe-worthy lyrics at its climax: “I just want to stand by your side / When everyone calls you a lie … Let’s stroll to the edge of the cliff / Stop here and give me a kiss.” These lyrics are “topped” on the egregious “Comet Song”: “You clenched your fist and threw the dish and called me Peter Pan / Your aim’s not very accurate and I thank God for that.” With clunky lyrics, schmaltzy strings, and a pace like molasses, “Comet Song” is the most disappointing closer from any Bright Eyes record, which usually saves one of the album’s best songs for last. And then, of course, there’s “Pan and Broom,” which is more baffling than provocative (to what end does sampling “Hotline Bling” serve?) and is all but unlistenable. It recalls “Theme to Pinata” for being absurd on its own right and incongruous with the rest of the album, but unlike Digital Ash, there is no surrounding brilliance here to conceal this blunder.
Not every moment is skippable: “Stairwell Song” is a sweet and moving elegy, the first two parts of “To Death’s Heart” are gripping, and there are slick production tricks and lots of musical earworms worked into the album that make moments of it lovely. But as a whole, thisis a joyless record and a joyless listen, one that is unworthy of the moniker of Bright Eyes and the radiant passion that that name has come to signify. Much like a weed, this record should have been trimmed down or, better yet, discarded altogether.