Conor Oberst says that “The People’s Key” will be the last Bright Eyes album. Presumably he’s not quitting music, but instead feels like the music he wants to make in the future will not be cut from that same Bright Eyes cloth. What’s kind of funny is that Bright Eyes hasn’t really sounded like Bright Eyes in awhile anyways, so the death of the name could be considered more of a blessing than a curse. The blessing of course would be that there’d be no more crappy Bright Eyes albums, though the negative to that means there won’t be anymore great Bright Eyes albums either. It’s been nearly 10 years since there’s been a Bright Eyes record that was more than worth your time, and that came in the form of 2002’s “Lifted…”. That’s not to say the project hasn’t had some special moments in more recent years, but there hasn’t been a front-to-back great Bright Eyes album in awhile. The exact reason why can be a little tough to pinpoint and explain, but many might argue that given the band’s revolving door of members as well as the natural inclination to “do something different” as time passed caused some tumultuous shifts in direction. Also, Oberst has grown up quite a bit since starting the project as an angsty teenager (while being labeled “the next Bob Dylan”), so with age and experience comes new perspectives and emotions.
At least Oberst has kept himself busy. His last two albums have not been Bright Eyes records, but a self-titled solo jaunt in 2008 and a team-up with the Mystic Valley Band in 2009. Both those records were pretty much a continuation of a number of sounds exposed in the last Bright Eyes album, 2007’s “Cassadaga”. Alt-country is where Oberst docked his ship for those years, though “Cassadaga” had a touch more experimental and complicated instrumental elements to it, going for a more widescreen and overblown view by comparison. In the other direction though, the Mystic Valley Band record, “Outer South”, might as well have been a “bro rock” album for all the frat boys to play at their barn dances each fall. Unlike his self-titled solo effort, “Outer South” allowed for the Mystic Valley Band to be more than just a backing band, but instead full-fledged participants on the album – to the point where nearly half the songs weren’t written or sung by Oberst himself. After a nightmare such as that, it was actually very much a relief to hear that there’d be another Bright Eyes album and the Mystic Valley Band might as well go fuck off, at least for the time being. In interviews leading up to the release of “The People’s Key”, Oberst was also touting how he’s “done” with the whole alt-country/Americana phase and hopes that the new record would be something different and interesting compared with what he’s done before. The good news is he’s at least half right.
The very beginning of “The People’s Key” features a couple minutes of spoken word courtesy of Texas musician Denny Brewer. He goes on about the dawn of humanity and how basically reptile-like aliens came here and populated the planet – “really sane” ramblings (/sarcasm) that definitely push a science fiction vibe out there from the start. The song part of “Firewall” kicks in after that, with a closely-picked electric guitar mumbling next to Oberst’s dominant vocal. The tempo never really picks up, nor does that guitar ever break the pattern it establishes from the start, but nevertheless there is a build up because more and more things get added to the mix as time passes. Oberst continues to toss out bits of lyrical wisdom in couplets, and while he doesn’t make too much sense from a full song, widescreen perspective, the wordplay is excellent as always. One particular line in “Firewall” stands out just a touch, and that’d be, “feelin’ close, but keepin’ my distance”. The reason why it stands out is that after listening to the album several times is because those two phrases kind of sum up the record as a whole. Yes, we’re being engaged, but unlike many past Bright Eyes albums, Oberst feels just a little more disconnected and distant than before. A project that began as a painfully personal exercise is now just a series of cleverly arranged phrases that sound really pretty together but don’t amount to a whole lot. Examine the lyrical content of a song like “Approximate Sunlight” and you’ll get gems such as “lick the solarplex of some L.A. shaman” or “the quinceanera dress she bought was unstitched with bullets”, both of which make very little sense in context but are drool-inducingly well written.
Stylistically speaking, hopefully nobody was holding their breath for a return to the sparse folk of early Bright Eyes material. What “The People’s Key” best resembles is actually Oberst’s brash, rock and roll one-off 2002 side project Desaparecidos, though with a bit more of an electro edge. For a Bright Eyes record, it’s the group’s poppiest and easiest to digest album, which is a good thing only if you want it to be. The positive of such a move is that there aren’t really any failed experiments, probably because there aren’t really any experiments. The only real “out there” elements are the aforementioned spoken word bits by Denny Brewer, that pop up multiple times throughout the record, and those sorts of things are pretty much expected from Bright Eyes at this point. Tracks like “Shell Games” and “Jejune Stars” are upbeat in tone and have relatively well-played hooks that stick with you, but one is an almost Spoon-like piano cut while the other slams on the power chords mixed with synths. Amidst the crunchy staccato guitars of “Haile Selassie” is some simply wonderful keyboard work that brings a warmth to the track that’d be entirely missing without it. Similarly, the organ work on “Triple Spiral”, along with the backing vocals, are the two most heroic things about the song, though there’s a lot of great things being done in those 4 minutes that makes it one of the album’s best. What is the true highlight of “The People’s Key” comes in the form of “Ladder Song”, which is classic Bright Eyes in the best possible way. Oberst sitting by himself at a piano, playing a sad ballad that not only makes sense but feels immensely personal. It shows up right near the end of the album, as if in giving his last hurrahs to this project he wanted to look back one last time at where he came from all those years ago. That young and highly emotional kid is still buried somewhere within him, and on rare occasions he’ll poke his head out, but for all practical purposes we’re dealing with a radically changed person from the one that many of us got to know quite well during our own troubled youths. Of course if we’re no longer troubled and he’s no longer troubled, does it make any sense to keep trying to squeeze blood from that orange? Probably not.
The best part of “The People’s Key” is that it’s one of the few Bright Eyes albums that doesn’t feel like there’s any gimmick associated with it. There’s not really any overarching theme or philosophy, though many of the songs do hint at some sort of spirituality or religious context (while never getting “preachy”). Instead, these are straight songs, played well and with a fair amount of enthusiasm, making it the most positive and dare I say delightful Bright Eyes record ever. If the story of this band were the plot of a movie, it’d be like the early days were hell and misery, but as time went on things got better until the happy ending resolution. The thing is, real life doesn’t particularly play out like it does in the movies, and all too often those happy endings either never come or never reach those euphoria-induced states we might originally aim for. That’s not saying the positivity in “The People’s Key” is disingenuous or a bad thing, but instead something more formulaic and bland. These songs are very nice to listen to, and the toning down of the bombast that “Cassadaga” pushed is a welcome thing, but outside of some strongly organized words, not much on this record stands out as overtly excellent. The personal connection that Conor Oberst has typically brought to the Bright Eyes name, even when he’s not necessarily sad, has pretty much been the selling point. No matter what the experiment he was trying, from the sparse folk beginnings to the electro sounds of “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn” to the expansive Americana melodies of more recent years, the first-person narrated stories Oberst wrote, true or not, could always be counted on to set him apart from everyone else. By downplaying and largely eliminating those aspects from “The People’s Key”, there’s not a lot of distinction between this music and a lot of what else is out there. The good news is that the album still winds up being better than a few of the other records he’s put out recently, solo, with the Mystic Valley Band or Bright Eyes. At the very least, it’d be nice to see Bright Eyes get some radio airplay and a much larger fanbase as a result of this record. It’s certainly worthy of it, and would be pretty fitting tribute to the band name being retired. That way, all those new young fans can progress through the Bright Eyes catalogue backwards, only to discover what we did those many years ago – here’s a guy that truly understands all the problems in my life right now, and that wounded voice and lyrics of his brilliantly reflect all those things in a way I could never truly express on my own.