A few months ago, I visited some friends of mine. We all went out. Time means nothing at this point, so I’m not sure if it was six, or nine, or ten months, or ten years ago. It doesn’t really matter. I walked out of my friends’ apartment that afternoon to begin my trek home, wearing some sunglasses that made me look like a chubby John Lennon and a hat from Chance the Rapper’s album The Big Day (I know, make fun of me). I stepped out, and the world froze around me.
The moment sticks in my head – not quite sure why. I’d done this a million times. But the Door Dash bikers, the cars, and the woman walking her small dog all seemed to be moving with time while I froze. They seemed to be changing while I felt stuck in one moment. Maybe the hangover was just that bad. But Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, the latest album from Bright Eyes, feels like that moment.
At the time, I felt horrible, but I didn’t feel cynical. I don’t know if I felt hopeful either, but I’m not sure that hope is the opposite of cynicism. Both feelings have some certainty built in, a measure of faith that the world works in one definitive way or another.
The cynic might insist that the world’s utterly empty, devoid of meaning, and not worth our time, attention, or saving. Perhaps, to the cynic, we mean nothing to one another. This album, then, can’t be cynical – the album’s filled with moments of meaning, of striking out against the emptiness in a perhaps hopeless, but certainly worthwhile, thrust towards meaning.
The album’s not necessarily hopeful, either. Hope believes that everything will end up for the best. It subscribes to the theory that everything happens for a reason. Hope tells the world that those who do bad may have bad done to them and those who do good, well, they will receive good in return.
The album’s filled with songs at the precipice of understanding that everything must end, that this life might just be a cruel game we play for a while before it all comes crumbling down. It accepts, without question, that the world can be a pretty empty place.
“Tilt-a-Whirl” and “Hot Car in the Sun” both eschew hope, insisting that this world’s a wild ride, a dangerous journey we move through, mostly alone, until the ride ends – like a tilt-a-whirl at a county fair.
As Oberst says in “Hot Car in the Sun”, “It’s just painful to walk around/It’s just painful to talk out loud/I know this pain is not alone.”
Oberst supports the moments of loneliness in this album, of hopelessness, with a reminder that we’re not exactly alone. We’re all sharing this pain – with our friends, our loved ones, and especially those going through that same pain with us.
The album’s neither hopeful nor cynical – it feels more absurd than anything else. Here, nothing matters except that which you make matter. Here, the world can fall apart all around you while you dance…and sing in celebration. The album glides in the beginning and drops like a roller coaster when you reach the pinnacle of the ride. Right when you think Bright Eyes may have perked up, found meaning, or even found joy in the meaninglessness (although that’s certainly been there schtick before), they dive back into the depths of their own despair.
Songs like “Dance and Sing” and “Just Once in the World”, at the beginning of the album celebrate the absurdity, imploring us to revel in the failure, to dance through the depression, to enjoy the love that just doesn’t make any sense. It dives back into its own depths with songs that explore the futility of being alive and the emptiness of falling in love and getting stuck in the falling out of it. The world of Bright Eyes has no inherent joy nor despair – it has the emotions we experience and have to confront if we are to make any meaning in a world full of strange contrasts.
The emotions that Bright Eyes explores on this album are exquisitely common. It’s in their commonality that they find their meaning. Whether it’s growing old or losing a loved one or escaping a now lost love, Connor Oberst wrote this album for all of us. Maybe that’s how he gets away with writing such sorrowful lyrics overtop such buoyant music.
Listening to “Calais to Dover” – I walk along the sidewalk to this song like I’m Joseph Gordon-Levitt dancing with the good people of Los Angeles as “You Make My Dreams (Come True)” plays. Of course, as the song goes on, as the guitar plays with reckless abandon, the message becomes darker, with Oberst begging “Now that you’re gone/Tell me you understand my love.”
The album circles the drain song after song, becoming almost too repetitive in its absurd happiness contrasting with moments of pure despair. There’s no reason for this album to make anybody anywhere feel good, and in that reckless abandonment, Oberst and his bandmates seem to inspire us that we can figure it out, build some meaning on the bedrock of a cruel, thoughtless world. Treasuring the small joys, while also finding the strength to stare down our darkest moments (and allow them to stare back at us), lays at the heart of this album – and lends it purpose.
Oberst seems to realize that none of this despair happens alone – we all face the same demons, even if they come to all of us in different forms, at different times. With all his success, Oberst and his bandmates realize that there’s no escaping the finality of the mundane.
As they sing on the song “Forced Convalescence,” “Catastrophizing my Birthday/Turning Forty/Ending Up like Everyone/There’s no escaping the house work/or the bank clerk/or the priest.”
In what the band describes as their most collaborative project, the 2000’s indie stars realize that the troubles they ran from have no escape. Growing old, facing heartbreak, and, even worse, enduring the mundane – we all face those realities.
The final song, “Comet Song”, captures in one simple lyric the entire thesis of the album. “There’s a comet in the sky, at least once a century,” Oberst sings, with a resigned voice, over a joyful guitar reminiscent of the I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning era.
The line is a resigned shrug in the face of a world that makes no sense. In a world that insists we will never understand it. We may never be happy, not truly happy, not in the sense that we feel content or complete or understand our place in the world. Perhaps understanding our meaning makes the world emptier. Maybe we’re just mean to enjoy a comet in the sky, at least once a century.
Earlier in the song, Oberst references a Bright Eyes song from 2005, “Lua.” He sings, “Although I told you many times, I’m not much of a man/You held out hope believing that at least I might pretend.”
Lua captures that late night hope, the perfect one-night stands. The night’s punctured by the morning light proving that everything can’t be so perfect, not for very long at least. “Comet Song”, and this entire album works from the premise of when you keep trying after the morning light comes.
“It’s a last-ditch effort/makes no sense to try,” Oberst sings on “Dance and Sing,” but we try anyway. Sometimes, all we can hope for is for the people around us to pretend to care. And that’s where Bright Eyes leaves us.
The world can be a hard place – the past few months reminds us of that, and continues to remind us of that every single day. Hope and despair, however, aren’t inherent to our experience – they are choices we make, at the end of the day. The world’s neither an inherently good place nor inherently evil (in my opinion – what do I really know?). At the end of the day, it’s up to all of us, and the folks around us, to build meaning on a day-to-day basis, dancing and singing through the moments of despair.
Facing them, bravely, with the people around us and a willingness to revel in the despair – that’s how we make meaning. This album may be exactly what we need in 2020, a guidebook to creating meaning of our own, of accepting just how dark the world can be – praying in the dark that the people we care about really care about us as well (or at least might pretend to).