About 20 years ago, Conor Oberst, the singer-songwriter who fronts Bright Eyes, sheepishly warbled his way out of Omaha to become an emo heartthrob and a baroque-folk New Dylan. But Oberst was never one for sitting still artistically, and he ping-ponged throughout the aughts, from synth–rock to punk to rustic folk, moving to New York and then Mexico, finally putting his longtime band on indefinite hiatus altogether after 2011’s The People’s Key.
Flash-forward a decade, and artists from Lana Del Rey to Phoebe Bridgers owe some debt to his bleeding-heart Bush-era sadcore. Which means his first album in nine years fits in just fine in today’s world. Apart from the LP’s nonsense high-concept opening track, this is as close to a compact, cohesive pop record as Oberst has ever made, crafted with longtime bandmates Mike Mogis and Nathaniel Walcott. Oberst draws on pulsing New Wave (“Mariana Trench”), wee-small-hours torch singing (“Comet Song”), and sharp turn-of-the-century pop rock (“Calais to Dover”). As often as not, his lyrics function as stage cues, like when Oberst sings, “You like cinematic endings,” on “Stairwell Song,” and then closes the track with a dramatic orchestral swell; or on “Persona Non Grata,” when he sings, “Wore a kilt like a Celt,” and then throws in a wonderfully gratuitous bagpipe solo.
It sounds like Oberst has been storing up material for a while: The most piercing moment is “To Death’s Heart (In Three Parts),” a duet with Jesca Hoop that touches on the 2015 terrorist attack in Paris: “There’s bodies in Bataclan/There’s music in the air,” he sings. At its heart, Down in the Weeds is a wounded, hopeful take on the Los Angeles midlife-crisis record (he moved there a few years ago). It’s a topic well-suited for Oberst’s abstract cynicism, as he tackles crumbling SoCal interstates, Malibu beach disasters, and, of course, yoga. Flea even shows up to play bass. “Vacuumed up all of the fairy dust/Held Savasana on the floor/Just felt like dying,” he sings. Musically, though, he’s found a new life.