Spend enough time around someone from Los Angeles and you’ll inevitably hear about The Big One. A piece of localised folklore that rivals the Loch Ness monster, The Big One is the massive earthquake for which California’s coastal metropolis is supposedly overdue, a once-in-a-lifetime event that would spell the end for Tinseltown. Despite its being scientifically unverified, one can understand why it haunts LA’s inhabitants: between the ocean and the desert, with a web of highways towering above the city, the collision of hubris and natural might is enough to make the staunchest sceptic fear an apocalypse.
Conor Oberst, the lead singer and songwriter of beloved indie trio Bright Eyes, is far from a sceptic. The icon of indie-folk says he has been “obsessed with death since [he] was, like, five years old”, a trait that, in tandem with his recent move to Los Angeles, makes him the perfect audience for Big One apocalypse dreaming. And, sure enough, mere minutes into Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, Oberst’s recently released 10th studio album with Bright Eyes, the highways begin to topple: “Look now as the crumbling 405 falls down when The Big One hits.”
Fans of Oberst and his work with Bright Eyes will be familiar with these visions. Since he first started recording music as a teenager in the late ’90s, Oberst has populated his songs with violent, cathartic scenes of the end of the world. He creates beautiful vistas that, like Renaissance paintings of Armageddon, are too beautiful and too terrifying to look away from: an obliterating burst of light on 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors; a darkness that extinguishes the sun and moon on 2002’s Lifted; a mural heralding the end of days on 2007’s Cassadaga. Combining youthful misanthropy with knotty poetics, Oberst began to be tagged “the next Dylan”, and his early records were solidified as high school classics, albums to be cherished by smart, anxious outsiders.
By the end of Bright Eyes’ initial nine-album run, spanning the late ’90s to early 2010s, Oberst and his bandmates – long-time friend, engineer and producer Mike Mogis and multi-instrumentalist Nate Walcott, each of whom joined the band at different points in its run – had built the band into a warped, blackened mirror that inverted the conventions of indie rock. They provided an earnest and chaotic counterpoint to the louche, big-money revivals of garage-pop and post-punk that populated the scene at the time.
When Oberst, Mogis and Walcott decided to retire Bright Eyes, after 2011’s The People’s Key, each undertook new projects, with occasional overlaps. Mogis and Walcott composed the score for the 2014 teen drama The Fault in Our Stars, and collaborated with Oberst on his solo records; all three worked with Los Angeles musician Phoebe Bridgers, who has just released her acclaimed second album, Punisher. But their solo work has only rarely paralleled the vivid, surreal world of Bright Eyes.
The allusion to The Big One on Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is a little different to the lyrics of Oberst’s past – a little more tongue-in-cheek, a little less urgent. It crops up in the rollicking song “Mariana Trench”, slotted among a handful of other wholly unlikely end-of-days scenarios: perishing atop Everest, in the depths of the ocean, and so on. “Knock on wood, I hope it never happens, because so many people I love live in Los Angeles,” Oberst says of The Big One, “I live in Los Angeles.”
One could chalk up Oberst’s new distance from his trademark catastrophising to age. It’s been nearly 10 years since Bright Eyes previously released an album, and he and his bandmates have different concerns, among them partners, children and pets. As they speak to me over a Zoom video call – Oberst and Mogis from Mogis’s ARC Studios in Omaha, Nebraska, where they grew up, and Walcott from his home in Los Angeles – evidence of the band’s middle-aged lifestyles manifests in the form of calls from children or dogs crying out for attention.
On the other hand, one could see this lightness as reactive, the result of a traumatic few years in which Oberst, Mogis and Walcott experienced devastating loss. In 2016, Oberst’s brother died in his sleep; the next year, he began to separate from his wife of seven years. About the same time Mogis and his wife, with whom he has two children, were divorced. Oberst once said that his brother “drank himself to death”. This tragedy echoes through Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, with images arising of a brother’s grave, a sleep paralysis demon taking the shape of a lost loved one. “The cowboy drinks himself to death” – a line from “Mariana Trench” – is a far more chilling evocation than The Big One when you know what Oberst has suffered.
While it still incorporates hallmarks of Bright Eyes’ sound – pedal steel, a spoken word introduction, references to all manner of deities – Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is a more visceral, clear-eyed experience than Bright Eyes albums of yore. Death is no longer a spectre in Oberst’s life but a fully realised character, a hawker knocking at the door looking for a way in. Its presence here is not in the form of the world going black, but in the form of bodies in a nightclub in Paris or Tiananmen Square, cancer scares, suicidal ideations neutralised by pills but always one missed dose away. The years since The People’s Key, it seems, have been a period of awakening.
“Here in the US, we’ve had many many mass shootings, many – I can’t even count all the terrible ones that have occurred,” Oberst says, speaking of the album’s reference to the 2015 Bataclan shooting in Paris, his voice rising from its consonant-smothering drawl. “But that one sort of struck home for me, because that’s just like… Eagles of Death Metal? At the Bataclan? Which we’ve played?
“Thinking about somebody coming to the door and killing your merch person and then killing all the kids at your show, it just hit me so hard. Like, that could have been our show, that could have been any of my friends’ shows. That’s what we do – we go to those places and we play rock shows. And so, it just really hit home hard that, like, this fundamentalism and this level of violence knows no bounds. Who would have imagined somebody would attack an [indie rock venue]?”
Mogis chips in, struggling for words. “The juxtaposition between what they were there to do, and then having their lives end, shot with a machinegun…” Recalling the attack, a co-ordinated massacre that resulted in 89 deaths, all three members of the band still sound shaken. “It’s a small world and it’s a small community,” says Walcott. “That person could have been our merch person.”
That mention of “bodies in the Bataclan” is one of the few occurrences of real-world grounding on Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was. Bright Eyes’ best-known album, 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, was a profoundly political record, in which Oberst raged against Bush-era conservatism. Casual fans expecting the same from Oberst circa 2020 will come up short: while the album contains casual references to capitalism and technology, there is nothing as specific or as brutal as 2005’s “At the Bottom of Everything”. Even so, the past few years seem to have been radicalising for Oberst. Always profoundly left-wing, he is horrified by the Trump presidency.
“Living in America is terrifying, politically, in so many ways,” he says, becoming animated. “It just creates massive anxiety and massive… When you realise the depth and the wholesale insanity of Trump and the never-ending inequality and oppression of poor people and people of colour and just anyone that is not as privileged as us to be able to live the life we’re living, if you’re aware of that stuff, it’s gonna seep into the songs.
“I don’t think any of the songs are about any of that stuff, but I think there’s a kind of undercurrent to it that’s gonna come through. You write a song about your life, but your life is not disconnected from the world which you live in, which, unfortunately, is in most cases a pretty fucked-up world, if you’re willing to read the news or be empathetic or have any kind of consideration for your fellow humans.”
Despite the heaviness of the band’s new emotional outlook, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was is not, musically speaking, a heavy album. Instead, it sits as a kind of Californian Gothic, bright and unsettling, humid and disorienting. Lush strings – inspired, Walcott says, by Igor Stravinsky and Scott Walker and Björk’s Vespertine – pad out the album’s darker tracks, while classic rock guitar solos verging on camp provide a welcome levity.
This is the first truly collaborative Bright Eyes album – instead of Oberst simply bringing finished songs to his bandmates, the trio fleshed it out together. Perhaps as a result, these songs feature more distinct melodies and more complicated rhythms. Tonally, it’s perhaps most similar to Cassadaga, an album in which Oberst used pop forms to explore the surreal and the psychic. No matter how it sounds, though, it is likely that it will be compared with I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Fevers and Mirrors, the two records that, due to their popularity, still colour casual listeners’ view of Oberst. Read any profile of Oberst written in the past decade, and it will likely compare Oberst’s looks with press photos of him taken when he was 19 or 20. Most will describe him as an emo hero, a tag that dogs him despite his increasing distance from the genre.
Both Oberst and Mogis acknowledge that teenagers make up a large portion of their fan base, and this association between the band and youthfulness seems to extend to public perceptions of Oberst. “There’s people [who] didn’t keep following the band, that just know these two records or this one blip of time, and they’ve seen the photographs from that era, or they’ve seen the tattoos on those kids’ arms, or whatever,” Oberst tells me, when I ask about the fixation on his past. “They have the very littlest surface-level knowledge of our band, or my career in general, and they don’t understand that I’ve pretty much put out a record every year for 20 fucking years.
“Listen to Desaparecidos’, like, Payola, it’s a fucking crazy punk record, the record after that was me on piano with harmonica, the record I made after that was with Jim Keltner, like, the greatest drummer that ever lived, and The Felice Brothers, the coolest Americana band that everybody wants to copy. The record after that was with Phoebe Bridgers, like, dope fuckin’ indie rock, the record I made after that was [Bright Eyes] doing our power.”
At 40, Oberst doesn’t really care what people think of him. “If they have one glimpse of my life, they’re not gonna understand it, and it’s gonna mean one thing to them. But if you wanna look at my entire catalogue and my life, I think you’ll find that I’m completely willing to explore and do all kinds of different things,” he says. “They can say whatever they want, they can have some preconceived notions, but they’re the ones that look like a fool once they see what I’ve done. I just say fuck ’em, if you have one concept of it, then have your one concept, it really doesn’t bother me. If you wanna take an interest, if you wanna look at all the music I’ve made, then I think you’ll find a completely different story.”
If there was ever an album to begin a different story, it would be Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was. Lyrical and generous, it feels like a new beginning for Oberst and co on their own terms, despite the weight of its conception, and despite the pain that it holds. The end of the world might be upon us, but Oberst is past fretting. Or, as he sings early on in the album: “All I can do is just dance on through, and sing.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 22, 2020 as "Eyes Open".
This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.
To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.
Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.
Select your digital subscription