Omaha, Nebraska singer/songwriter Conor Oberst was just a teenager when he started using the moniker Bright Eyes for his dark and tortured solo songs.
The project grew from its homespun roots in the mid-'90s to one of the more popular icons of sad indie music of its era. Oberst's quivery-voiced songs were backed by a rotating lineup of musicians, but Bright Eyes eventually gelled into an official trio of Oberst and multi-instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. Bright Eyes' albums throughout the 2000s (all issued on Oberst's indie imprint Saddle Creek) were some of their best-loved and best-performing, with releases like 2005's Digital Ash in a Digital Urn turning the tides of indie culture as well as cracking the Billboard charts. In 2020, after a nine-year hiatus, Bright Eyes announced they had signed with Dead Oceans for the release of their ninth studio album Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was.
The roots of Bright Eyes reach back to 1994, when at just 14 years old, Oberst was attracting regional attention as the singer and guitarist for Omaha band Commander Venus. A prolific songwriter, he soon amassed a number of songs that didn't gel with the rest of Commander Venus' catalog, 20 of which were compiled and released in 1998 as A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997, a solo record that doubled as Oberst's first release under the Bright Eyes moniker. Letting Off the Happiness followed several months later, featuring contributions from members of Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, and Tilly and the Wall. The album also marked the first collaboration between Oberst and producer/instrumentalist Mike Mogis, who would play an integral role in Bright Eyes' success going forward.
As Conor Oberst graduated from teenaged life to adulthood, his productivity increased. Bright Eyes' third release, Every Day and Every Night, appeared in 1999, followed by Fevers and Mirrors in 2000 and Oh Holy Fools in 2001. The Bright Eyes sound had expanded by this point, with Oberst finding room for flute, piano, and accordion in the band's music. The frontman also found room to pursue alternate projects, and he dedicated some time to Desaparecidos before returning to the studio with Mike Mogis in 2002. Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground was released that summer and proved to be Bright Eyes' breakthrough album, with Rolling Stone deeming it one of the year's best.
Bright Eyes released several EPs in 2004 -- including Home, Vol. 4, a collaboration with Spoon's Britt Daniel -- and rang in the following year with a pair of albums released on the same day: I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (whose accompanying tour produced the Motion Sickness: Live Recordings disc) and the electronic-slanted Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, both of which cracked the Top 20 in America. Hailed by some critics as the next Dylan, Oberst supported the releases with a round of festival appearances and international shows before returning to the studio once more. Recorded in L.A., Chicago, New York, Omaha, and Portland, the follow-up effort Cassadaga was released in the spring of 2007, preceded by the Four Winds EP earlier that spring. Both releases featured full instrumentation -- including pedal steel, Dobro, xylophone, and orchestral swells -- making them some of Bright Eyes' most developed works up to that point.
Cassadaga debuted at number four in America and number 13 in the U.K., marking Bright Eyes' highest peak on either chart. Even so, Oberst followed such success by decamping to rural Mexico to work on his first solo effort in years. Recorded in a makeshift studio with a cast of musicians dubbed the Mystic Valley Band, Conor Oberst arrived in 2008. The project soon evolved from a solo effort into a full-band affair, and the Mystic Valley Band returned in 2009 with Outer South, an album that included songs written and sung by several of Oberst's bandmates. Bright Eyes returned in 2011 with People's Key, which was recorded in Omaha and produced by Mogis and Andy LeMaster. In 2013, A Christmas Album, which had originally been quietly issued in 2002 as a Saddle Creek online-store exclusive, was finally scheduled for its first full commercial release. This unique holiday album featured a selection of Christmas standards performed in Bright Eyes' trademark bittersweet style, with help from a plethora of other Saddle Creek artists including members of Cursive, Desaparecidos, Neva Dinova, and Azure Ray. In October 2016, Bright Eyes received the box set treatment with the aptly named Studio Albums 2000-2011, which featured remastered versions of all of the group's LPs up to 2011's The People’s Key. This was leading slowly to the band's emergence from their dormant state. In January of 2020, Bright Eyes announced they had signed to indie imprint Dead Oceans for the release of their ninth album, Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, and began sharing new songs in advance of the record's release. The album arrived in August of the same year. ~ Andrew Leahey, Rovi