The world is certainly a different place than the last time Conor Oberst and co. banded together to form Bright Eyes. Stretching all the way back to turn of the decade 2011 and the release of ‘The People’s Key’ which eventually led to the band taking a break from collective working, each taking the opportunity to branch out on their own workings. Oberst taking the time to bring out some solo albums and work closely with none other than Phoebe Bridgers on both her albums and to form the Better Oblivion Community Centre duo. It’s also been 15 year since ‘I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning’, an album that focused on televised wars, body counts on the news and the eternal plight of American greed. In many ways the album was of its time, and unfortunately every bit as relevant today. What Bright Eyes have returned with now is an album full of loss, experience and hope, in a world where at the moment there might not seem like there’s much to go round.
Even after all these years the one consistent that has remained is Oberst’s flourishing and ever rolling songwriting. His ability to paint a scene and an emotion through witfully joined lyrics is what allowed Bright Eyes to become a staple of the MySpace indie era. “Don’t read my worried mind, That smoking gun passing through time, I’m yours, you can decide, What fate I’ll have on the firing line, Because now all I can do is just dance on through, And sing” Oberst proclaims on ‘Dance And Sing’ as he reveres in the notion that through all the unrest he is feeling, it all might be okay. This theme of hope is one that carries through to the end of this album. “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, Although I told you many times I’m not much of a man, You held out hope believing that at least I might pretend”. It’s an Oberst that is reflecting with a knowledge that’s he’s done all he can to be true to himself.
Instrumentally there are moments where the lyrics are then reflected in the sound “You always liked cinematic endings” Oberst states on ‘Stairwell Song’ after which the song bursts into a flurry of brief orchestra movements to close out the track. And on ‘Tilt-A-Whirl’ the “It vanishes into thin air, So suddenly” causes the track to suddenly stop as well. Subtle production chooses that show a sense of humour of the compositions.
There’s a certain unease that flows within this album in the way of the nightmarish and distorted samples that crop up on occasion at the start and end of tracks. Which stem from the intro of the album ‘Pageturners Rag’ which was a recording of a real evening ragtime recording of a bar that Oberst visits. Creating a surreal sense of uncertainty, that although the topics are seemingly trivial, the way they are presented feel almost as if you’re reaching a point of paranoia, where every sentence seems damning.
They’ve also recruited a couple of helping hands this time in the likes of Red Hot Chilli Peppers own Flea, who slaps a mean bass on tracks such as ‘Mariana Trench’ and ‘One And Done’. And Queens Of The Stone age’s Jon Theodore who provides the rolling beats on many moments of the album, especially coming into his own on ‘Forced Convalescence’ with the tight grooves and frantic drum rolls.
Throughout this entire album though there’s a certain boxy feel to the whole production that often distorts a lot of the sound. It’s hard to pin down to one element but it feels that there’s either too much bass at points or there’s too much mid-range volume that pushes the sound out further away than perhaps intended. It keeps in with the typical raw sound of previous Bright Eyes albums but at points can make the delicate melodies or searing orchestra movements hard or even harsh to listen to.
There’s plenty of ballads to go around in this album, with the track-listing at 16 songs and just under an hour their does sometimes feel as though there are moments that could have been shortened or left out, to help the bigger songs to really standout. ‘Hot Car In The Sun’ offers some of the dreamiest sounds on the album, but lyrically it’s not the most explorative on the album “Baby it’s okay, I love you, Baby it’s okay, Because I wanted to, Love you” sings Oberst on the chorus. It’s a tender ballad but with what the rest of the album delivers on, it leaves you just wanting a bit more.
Although there may be some more stripped back moments throughout, but when this album really wants to let rip, it certainly knows how. ‘To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts)’ is a masterclass in anthemic prowess. Building up through atmospheric guitars and spacey synthesisers, twisting and turning through emotive chorus’ to eventually bursting into full rock opera prowess towards the ending.
Sticking true to the classic Bright Eyes sound whilst adding in new elements of expansion has allowed the band to return after nearly a decade just as relevant as when they left. The names that make up this collective have stayed active which will have helped keep the Bright Eyes sound fresh and modern, but they still know how to tug on a heartstring.