"Pageturners Rag" is a seemingly shambolic sound collage recorded in and named after the former bookstore that Conor Oberst and his friend Phil Shaffart bought and turned into a bar in their hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, in 2012. Woven into the sound of ragtime trumpet and Dan McCarthy's piano is a collection of blurry conversations. Though the snippets of dialogue appear randomly picked up by a microphone, it was actually all carefully orchestrated by Oberst.
"Every Thursday night Dan McCarthy, a friend of ours, would have a ragtime happy hour and play Scott Joplin," Oberst explained to Uncut magazine. "I always associate that with that feeling of, 'Wow! I'm in a nice place.' I wanted to capture that feeling. We closed down the bar for the night and invited our friends, and I handed out all these cue cards with phrases I wanted people to say, and we set up microphones all over the bar to record the conversations."
The other element is separate voice recordings of Oberst's mother, Nancy, and his ex-wife, the Mexican musician Corina Figueroa Escamilla, talking during a three-hour mushroom trip at Conor Oberst's house. "Me, Corina and my mom all took some psychedelic mushrooms," explained Oberst. "It was mom's first time. But she did good! I recorded all the stuff that Corina and my mom was saying. It wasn't scripted or anything."
The song is the opening track of Down In The Weeds, Where The World Once Was, the first Bright Eyes project in nearly a decade, following The People's Key (2011). In between the albums, Oberst lost his brother Matty who died suddenly aged just 42, and his seven-year marriage to Corina Figueroa Escamilla ended, amicably.
You can hear Nancy Oberst talking about driving past her deceased son's old house, taking comfort from a rosebush suddenly reappearing in a spot where it used to be when he lived there.
Oberst told the UK newspaper The Sun: "My mother's a loose cannon. You never know what she's going to say and I knew that if we hung out long enough, she would say interesting stuff. "We all grew up as Catholics but when the s--t hit the fan and all the priests were abusing kids, she basically invented her own religion. I think she still worships the Virgin Mary, but she also talks to birds and looks for signs.
With my brother Matty passing, the rosebush was a pretty great example of her version of religion. It meant everything to her."
As for Corina's participation, Oberst said, "I like the sound of their voices. "I was married for eight years and I still totally love Corina but I can't help feeling that if I was going to have kids, if I was going to have a family, I've had my chance. Then I'm thinking, 'Do I want to be 60 and alone?' All that scary s--t."
That's Corina introducing the band in Spanish at the beginning of the song. Translated into English, she says:
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen! We're very excited you are here with us tonight. Join us as we take a walk through this long hallway, through the doors, and down memory lane. Let's warmly welcome Your Most Vivid Nightmares to the stage, performing their latest composition, Pageturners Rag!
We then hear pianist Dan McCarthy of the Omaha band McCarthy Trenching, and Nate Walcott from Bright Eyes performing the song.
The opening conversation piece is a Bright Eyes album tradition. For instance, previous record The People's Key
's opening track, "Firewall
," features a spoken-word intro from Refried Ice Cream guitarist Denny Brewer.