For most of his music career, Conor Oberst, the founding and core member of Bright Eyes, has had a musical identity crisis, albeit a highly productive and successful one. From the 2005 double-release of the modern folk masterpiece I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and electronic-driven Digital Ash in a Digital Urn to the country-fused Cassadaga, Oberst has done a little bit of everything. He’s also been in the music business since before he could get a driver’s license, yelping away with his fourteen-year-old prepubescent voice for the band Commander Venus.
Now at the age of thirty-one, Oberst is a musical veteran, and he shows little sign of wanting to let go of music any time soon. However, lately there have been hints at the approaching end of Bright Eyes, the band that truly brought him success. It makes one wonder how the band members will end their career and what sound they will cling to if they do subside.
With The People’s Key, it is immediately clear that the group does not want to end with a revisitation of their early sounds and musical styles. That songwriting has come and gone, and there is more musical territory to traverse before closing the curtain. In The People’s Key, Oberst proves to have a little bit more creativity left in him, avoiding the folksier singer-songwriter sounds of previous solo albums to explore a new musical territory, with the help of constant Bright Eyes members Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. This new territory is one with a wider array of studio-mastered instruments, including synthesizer and crunchy, calculated electric guitar and even more cryptic, avant-garde lyrics than previous releases.
The album begins with a monologue from a paranoid Denny Brewer, the guitarist of Refried Ice Cream, rambling on about personal conspiracy theories, on the mysteries of the universe and other topics befitting science fiction novels. The unsettling thoughts put forth by Brewer’s monologues peppered throughout the album match with some of the topics that Oberst tries to address in the album’s lyrics. However, the universe isn’t an easy nut to crack and peruse its inner pieces. So how does Oberst capture these aspects of the world in his lyics? Truthfully, only so well, but he makes the appearance that he is covering much more ground than he really is.
The People’s Key is by no means an overblown lyrical catastrophe; on the contrary, the words that Oberst created for the album are elegant and possess a unique flow. Writing lyrics is a talent that he has perfected in his career. But the lyrics just aren’t as impactful as previous releases. Part of the reason for this is because, on the surface, the lyrics are esoteric and cryptic, filled with obscure references to mythological and religious figures, such as Sisyphus and the Queen of Sheba, and with little to grasp onto compared with his past lyrics.
Another reason for the lack of impact actually lies in his newfound vocal ease and confidence. Earlier Bright Eyes’ releases were characterized by Oberst’s unrefined, feeble voice brimming with emotions with every word, and that is what made him such a powerful vocalist. In the new album, his voice has lost its sharp edges, and his words flow smoothly along, too smoothly, without the inner anguish and purpose seeping through.
One of the interesting aspects of the album, though, is the enticing instrumentation of the songs, which is somewhat atypical for a Bright Eyes album. In the first track of the album, “Firewall,” the crescendo of Mike Mogis’s pedal steel guitar,the shuffle of organ chords and the persistence of the drum cadence elevate the band to a wall of sound met by bright, fluid string runs.
“Shell Games,” the second track of the album, features an interplay between electronic sounds, smooth synthesizer riffs, driving drums and high-octave guitar licks that evokes a desire to simply sway along to the releasing electronic-filled groove. The hauntingly melancholy chords resonating from an aged piano in “Ladder Song” help channel Oberst’s pain over the loss of a close friend due to suicide. The abrasive, Pixies-esque guitar parts in “Triple Spiral” provide a fitting roughness to a song about the loss of faith.
All in all, The People’s Key is no masterpiece, no I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. From first listen, it is far from that. However, the album does contain a remarkable trait: it grows, and grows and grows on you. What at first is disappointment grows to be a craving to hear more and to revisit songs that didn’t fully leave a mark during the first listen. That is Bright Eyes’ musical touch: they stick with you. They draw you back to their songs after you’ve listened to them because you know that there’s so much beneath the surface that’s not evident in the first few listens. The album may not be the most resounding way for Bright Eyes to go out, but it is still a great listen and is sure to please many and to provide a comforting nostalgia to most of the fans.