There is a perception that indie bands tend to be flash-in-the-pan affairs, small time projects abandoned once the cost of going on outweighs the benefits of going on, or rather they outweigh the benefits in a way that is completely impossible to ignore. To an extent, this is true. Playing indie rock was never a license to print money, a statement that has perhaps never been truer than it is today. Be that as it may, indie bands also have a tendency to stick around with the kind of stubbornness that would put even the most obstinate of mules and goats to shame. Up until recently, it seemed that all hope was lost for Bright Eyes, once the veritable standard bearers for leading indie label Saddle Creek and whose last album release was in 2011.
The band’s retirement was a loss for the music world, as they had created some of the 21st century’s best indie music, full stop. But a full nine years later, the band has come roaring back with a brand-new record on a brand-new label, and they have lost none of their songwriting chops or compositional acumen in the near decade since they originally disbanded. “Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was,” released Aug. 21 off the Dead Oceans label, is a phenomenal return for this band, a release that is at times heartfelt, at times startlingly original, but at all times deeply engrossing and musically sophisticated.
Bright Eyes have been no strangers to introducing atypical instruments into their sounds, which is one of the things that makes them notable as a modern indie act. A cursory glance at this album’s personnel credits reveals the presence of the hammer dulcimer, bajo sexto, flugelhorn, harpsichord, and vibraphone among various other unusual instruments. These aren’t relegated to the background either, with these unique instruments being front and center in songs like “Tilt-A-Whirl" and “Persona Non Grata,” giving the album a kaleidoscopic free for all feeling without ever venturing into the territory of gimmick or camp.
In fact, the whole album has this slow, rompy, falling down the stairs on the moon kind of feeling not dissimilar to Bright Eye’s previous work, and it works for them. It should, since it’s their signature style that’s made them the darlings of the indie circuit, but it’s notable if for no other reason than nine years away from this project could very well have dampened their chops, as it has for many bands before them. It almost feels like this album could have come out in 2012 rather than 2020, it feels so fresh, like all the members of this band collectively woke up one morning years after breaking up and thought “let’s do this thing again” without a moment’s hesitation.
Bright Eyes is, and ought to be, a lot of people's first port of call for modern indie rock. The same could be said for many former and current Saddle Creek artists, but Bright Eyes takes the cake for their craft, melodic sensibilities and overall songwriting talents. A 10-album discography is no mean feat, and to return with an album this strong so many years later is a testament to these facts. The only thing that keeps it from ranking higher is the simple fact that it is exactly what one might imagine a Bright Eyes comeback album to be, and such things are always less remarkable in real life as opposed to the imagination. I give “Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was” 4/5 stars.