Bright Eyes – The People’s Key

February 7th, 2011 by Eric Loose


This could very well be Bright Eyes’ swan song. Hinting at the dying days of his Bright Eyes project last year in Rolling Stone, indie darling Conor Oberst sounded like he was ready to say goodbye to the band that garnered him fame as the poster-boy for skinny, bedroom-dwelling high school males everywhere, the 00’s answer to 80’s punk and 90’s emo. The kid is talented too, no denying that. Besides eliciting comparisons to the oh-so-comparable likes of Dylan, Oberst could weave his own warbly lines of genius. Whether they be drug-infused, lovelorn, or downright depressed, Bright Eyes’ lyrics tore at heartstrings with ease. Arriving at his most recent effort with the band’s impending mortality in question, we’re left with one, main query: should this be the finish line for Bright Eyes, is this how we want it all to end?

We’ll arrive at that question later, because I presently wonder if this is how Oberst himself wants the band to leave. The People’s Key isn’t simply more of the same, it dips and dives into territory untouched by the simplistic plucking of past Bright Eye’s releases. Surely, the artist didn’t want to go out with Just Another Bright Eyes Record, and The People’s Key evidences this in obvious fashion. The band’s eighth studio album features noises pouring in like never before, in quantity and type. I could have foreseen a more electro-based work from Oberst, but not to this degree. With crisp keyboards, impressive utilization of synths, and drum-powered rhythms galore, this is a new Bright Eyes, and a bizarre one at that. It’s difficult to be caught off guard by a guy that included a 9-minute song almost entirely composed of him seemingly rambling to himself about symbolism on a fake radio show of some sort, but the instrumentation in all its variety on The People’s Key does just that- catches the listener unawares. In itself, this feat isn’t impressive. What should please listeners new and old alike, though, is the utter nonchalance and comfort that Oberst pulls this jump in style off with. This shift in sound alone doesn’t mark up the maturity of Oberst, but his ingenuity and willingness to experiment (note the near-psychedelic “Haile Selassie” and the anthemic, upbeat “A Machine Spiritual”) is worth a few notches on the proverbial door’s frame.

Gone is the sullen, downtrodden man who followed his introspection with a dessert of pessimism; Oberst has undergone a renewal of attitude on The People’s Key. Famous past tracks of his like “The First Day of My Life” have showcased his more hopeful, lovey side, but never has he seemed as genuinely exuberant as he does on the electric (literally and figuratively) “Triple Spiral,” “But that’s the problem an empty sky, I fill it up with everything that’s missing in my life.” The best part about The People’s Key is that it isn’t simply eclectic for eclectic’s sake (or electric for electric’s sake); rather, Oberst fits the pieces beautifully. The shift in sound matches his attitude, and the product is all the better for it. There are dips in the album, surely. For example, the softness “Shell Games” is borderline dullness. The biggest complaint about Bright Eyes’ latest is most likely to remain an unconscious one among listeners, because it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly is irking about this album with so little obvious flaws. It’s not as emotive as Fevers and Mirrors or I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Oberst’s bleeding heart doesn’t come close to the emotiveness he achieved on his two biggest releases. His most recent output isn’t in the same vein as these two, and doesn’t even aim for near the same effects, much less achieve them; and those looking for the same downtrodden, hopeless troubadour that they found a decade ago will be sorely disappointed (and kidding themselves).

Jason Boesel, the drummer for Rilo Kiley, described The People’s Key as the “best sci-fi emo album of the last 20 years!!!” I can’t help but agree, as The People’s Key is a strong effort from Oberst, but just can’t match that glorious sci-fi emo pre-1990. These are fittingly strange words for a strange album, if you ask me. At the very least, The People’s Key is an interesting output, which is more than I can say for Cassadaga. Conor Oberst has a new, electrified sound to match his no-longer helplessly self-pitying persona, and the genius is still there. Look no further than the always-exquisite songwriting and the influx of new sounds and devices to add to The People’s Key for evidence of this. It’s an odd one for sure; but then again, so is Conor Oberst (he begins the album in predictably strange fashion, too, in keeping with tradition). For this release, I urge you: follow the artist’s lead. Learn to embrace the new sound that Bright Eye’s has embraced with an open mind, and you’ll find similar contentment and justification that Oberst has seemingly found with what may just be his glorious swan song.

Final Score: 3.87/5




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