Bright Eyes | The People’s Key
Most Likely To: provide a glimpse into an uncertain future.
Bright Eyes’ The People’s Key is Conor Oberst’s first album under that moniker since 2007’s Cassadaga, but by no means has his famous prolificacy decreased in the intervening four years. He’s contributed songwriting to two albums by Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band as well as the Monsters of Folk supergroup.
For those of us willing to admit to an appreciation of Bright Eyes’ work that goes beyond high school angst, the announcement of this new record was cause for excitement, but as advance track “Shell Games” hinted, what Oberst and his multi-instrumentalist collaborators Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott have delivered is an ambitious, unexpected album that just misses the mark.
It was hard to know what sonic stylings to expect from The People’s Key; the spare, tuneful folk of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning? The psychedelia-tinged Americana of underrated follow-up Cassadaga? The generic, Wilbury-esque alt-country of Oberst’s eponymous project? Or perhaps even the electronic experiments of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn? In actuality, The People’s Key draws ideas from all of these recordings, but its unifying sound is something new to Oberst’s oeuvre — a sort of worked-over, offbeat pop-rock that eschews many of indie’s current “relevant” sonic trends in pursuit of something different.
The strange thing is that the two tracks here that take this album’s heavy emphasis on production to the greatest extreme — opener “Firewall” and closer “One For You, One For Me” — and are therefore the most dissimilar from Bright Eyes’ previous work, are actually the most memorable of the lot. “Firewall,” which begins with an endearingly ridiculous sci-fi-mysticism monologue from Refried Ice Cream’s Denny Brewer (a friend of Oberst’s) is a stunning track that maintains interest for its full seven minutes. It begins with some brooding, finger-picked electric guitar and builds into a dizzying piece of production, with strings, harmonies, martial drums, and Oberst’s typically wordy, enjoyably pulpy lyrics.
Even though the lyrics of “One For You” engage in the same sort of ham-fisted listifying as Cassadaga’s “I Must Belong Somewhere,” I can’t help but get swept up by the crisp, kinetic quality of the music. There are elements of Digital Ash’s digi-pop, and possibly even a trip-hop influence; mainly, it’s a good sense of pacing and the clear isolation of all the different instruments in the mix (same goes for “Firewall”) that make it much more dynamic, catchy, innovative, and memorable than the rest of the album, which often sounds pretty muddy.
Tracks two through eight have some standout moments (“Shell Games,” “Approximate Sunlight,” “Beginner’s Mind”), and Oberst’s lyrical acumen has not dulled — though he does remain weirdly focused on the mystical spirituality that Brewer’s monologue introduces us to. The problem is that when it comes to the arrangements, they just don’t seem to know when to leave well enough alone, overstuffing or overprocessing them just enough to shroud the actual lyrics and chord structures. In a telling moment, there’s a quiet breather in the middle of “Beginner’s Mind” that lasts just a couple of lines before they decide to mask Oberst’s vocal with an obnoxious and pointless vocal effect.
We get a relieving moment of clarity on the penultimate track, “Ladder Song,” — a spare, piano-led ballad that hearkens back to earlier Bright Eyes — before they plunge us into the sonic adventure of “One For You.” It’s not as tuneful as the best moments on IWAIM or Cassadaga (a record I’ve come to love even though it lacks dexterity at times) but it shows that Oberst retains many of his strengths as a songwriter.
In fact, while an album like this might typically suggest a gradual stagnation in an artist’s career, The People’s Key has enough going on to show that Oberst and his collaborators are far from running out of ideas; in fact, it’s pretty dense and I’m sure it would reveal more on repeated listens, I’m just not particularly compelled to return to it. But between “Ladder Song” and the opening and closing tracks, there are a lot of directions they could take the Bright Eyes sound next, some of them new and very exciting, and it’s impossible to tell which ones they’ll follow.
Watch the video for “Shell Games”: