Bright Eyes have always made music meant to be consumed alone. In fact, their name has pretty much become shorthand for the kind of soundtrack best primed for solitary self-reflection. Face-tatted rapper Post Malone even recently credited Conor Oberst and co. as informing more than his signature quivering vocals: “‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’ is probably one of the saddest albums. I sit there, and I’m drinking and crying my fuckin’ eyes out to that shit.”
The funny thing about this Posty quote, though, is that ‘I’m Wide Awake’ isn’t even Bright Eyes’ saddest record. That accolade probably going to their 2000 breakthrough ‘Fevers and Mirrors’, an immensely raw and personal album that turns 20 this year.
Brand new track ‘Persona Non Grata’, Bright Eyes’ first new music in nine years – which follows three solo records from Obest and a recent collaboration album with Phoebe Bridgers, ‘Better Oblivion Community Center’ – sees the band maintain the sage-like, cryptic feel of their latter-day records. Yet it also returns to the intimacy and immediacy of their early material.
Bright Eyes had been scheduled to begin a world tour in Japan this week, with their live dates cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. In a message to fans released with ‘Persona Non Grata’, the band write: “We wanted to send our love and solidarity to everyone out there feeling alone, frightened and isolated… You are not alone. We are in this together.”
They also said they’d struggled to decide which track from their forthcoming album to lead with “because they are all quite different.” Ultimately, though, you can see why they settled on this one. Oberst and his long-time bandmates Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott have noted how they were spurred to reunite “amidst the current overwhelming uncertainty and upheaval of global and personal worlds.” This dual sense of societal dystopia and inner turmoil collide and intertwine on the quietly poignant ‘Persona Non Grata’.
“There’s a playground of children / In the shadows of buildings / There’s a line out the church / Where your homelessness works,” Oberst sings over a grave-sounding piano. “Saw a valley of bones / Where no man shall be saved.” The focus soon shifts to a loved one “filled with despair, under-fed and depressed” and the narrator’s “life of deception and passive aggression”, before the song peaks with a crescendo of dissonant bagpipes (a first for the Bright Eyes back-catalogue) following pained and barbed lines uttered through gritted teeth: “Gonna scream when I sing / Gonna die in the ring… And now you want me to be true / To you / Once again”.
Oberst’s strength as a songwriter has long been to make the personal sound universal and the universal feel personal, and manages to do both on ‘Persona Non Grata’ – just when we needed it the most.