Release Date: Feb 15, 2011
Record label: Saddle Creek Records
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock
Click to Listen to Bright Eyes' The People's Key It's been almost a decade since Bright Eyes' Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, the epic 2002 album that established Conor Oberst as the pain-strumming poet of emo and the newest of the New Dylans. But the 22-year-old hadn't asked for either gig. So Oberst spent the 2000s abjuring big statements, choosing to scale down his sound, bum around North America and try to figure himself out.
Towards the end of Conor Oberst’s stint fronting the Mystic Valley Band, a song began to feature in their live sets entitled ‘One of My Kind’. Although it provided the band’s documentary with its title, it didn’t really sound like a song of theirs. Concerned as it was with returning home after a period absent, meeting up with old friends, first loves and getting “good and drunk”, it sounded just like a Bright Eyes song.
“I was dressed in white/Touched by something pure.” It may not be what he was getting at, but it’s hard not to think of Cassadaga-era Oberst onstage during that tour: dressed in tailored, pure white Prada—clothes so agleam, they’d reflect the auditorium lights. For many, the sight and sound of a cleaned-up Bright Eyes left them unfulfilled and wistful for the journey past promised. It’s this album that finally sees it realized.
From spiritual to celestial; from inner peace to outer space. 2007’s country rock classic [b]‘Cassadaga’[/b] was an album about finding sense and order in a senseless, orderless universe, inspired by Conor Oberst’s visit to a spiritualist commune in the Florida town of the same name. But now the philosophical coin is flipped: [b]‘The People’s Key’[/b] is on a mission to decipher how quantum mechanical codes, prisms and triple spirals can add up to the complexity and confusion of humankind.Certainly it boldly goes where no wobble-voiced, therapy-scarred Nebraskan psych-poet has gone before.
Few had high expectations for The People’s Key. Ending a hiatus that began in 2007 for Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes project, this eighth record under the name comes as the latest installment in a career that’s been going south for at least half a decade. From the largely dead-end electronica of 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn through the country-schmaltz snooze of his two recent solo albums, it seemed that time and age had blandly mellowed the once fiery soul of emo-flecked folk.
For every fan of Conor Oberst, there has been a moment when this precocious voice of troubled youth has come of age; to my mind, this really is the one. What sets The People's Key apart from Oberst's prodigious output over the past 15 years isn't its lyrical density or conceptual assurance, but the taut, bright, propulsive vitality of its musicianship. This is practically a pop album – albeit a pop album about time, the universe, life as a hallucination and spiritual redemption.
Conor Oberst is one insufferable hipster. How dare he expect listeners to work their way through his over-the-top concepts and spoken-word narratives about the cosmos and the existence of hope? How dare he expect listeners to traverse through his endless genre shifts and endure his quivery, borderline-ridiculous voice? And if Oberst is indeed that awkwardly ambitious and purposefully exaggerated, why do we still love him? Why do we keep coming back? For starters, despite all his eccentricities and for all his borderline-annoying tendencies, the bottom line is that no one else is capable of making Bright Eyes music. In an age where “indie rock” is a cliché, when every new band seems to sound at least a little bit like the last trend-setter, it’s nice to know that, with each new Bright Eyes album, we’ll have absolutely no idea what it’s going to sound like.
Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst takes a walk with the mystics on the band’s latest album. He sees ”crooked crosses falling from the sky,” invokes Haile Selassie, and has a guest ”shaman” wax cosmic about the future of the universe. ”I’ve seen stranger things, man,” Oberst insists. Really? Fortunately, the music stays grounded, with Oberst trading his recent country-folk fixation for pop choruses and electro beats that New Order might dig.
Returning to Bright Eyes after a three-year solo-ish sojourn, Conor Oberst switches gears for The People’s Key, downshifting from the rustic canyon rock of the Mystic Valley Band so he can ride a moody modern rock vibe not too dissimilar from Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Passing resemblances aside, The People’s Key is quite different in tone and tenor than Digital Ash, the somewhat tempered corrective to the self-styled major statement I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. Like the Mystic Valley albums before them, The People’s Key is deliberately not designed as a major statement; perhaps it possesses recurrent themes -- spirituality drifts through the album, often taking shape in vague Rastafarian sentiments; the album is bookended by murmured recitations that play like library finds, not spoken truths -- but the album lacks heft.
The People’s Key - Conor Oberst’s eighth and reportedly final album under the Bright Eyes moniker - has a lot to live up to after a rich career, starting with 1998’s A Collection Of Songs Written 1995-1997. Like him or loathe him, Oberst is one of only a handful of living songwriters about whom the word ‘genius’ has been used too many times to dismiss as pure hyperbole. But he’s faced plenty of criticism too, mainly regarding overwrought lyrics that have alienated a lot of listeners.
Every proper Bright Eyes album opens with a recording of a voice or voices. On Letting Off the Happiness, it’s a crowd of rowdy schoolkids; on Fevers and Mirrors, a child reading a story; on Lifted, the sound of Bright Eyes principal Conor Oberst and his bandmates on tour. In some way, each of these recordings serves as a sort of table of contents, pointing towards the dominant themes of the album that it introduces.
There’s something to be said about the consistency of Bright Eyes records over the past decade, at least in terms of approach and process — specifically Bright Eyes records and nothing that Conor Oberst has released under any other handle. Whether you loathe Oberst, hide behind some strange wall of shame regarding a past obsession with him, or continue to love him unconditionally, there’s no denying that the Bright Eyes albums are built around solid visions, both content and style-wise. They all begin with a prolonged introduction, and one deliberately conjoined with the first track, so that it’s difficult to skip over.
The one defining characteristic of Conor Oberst’s prolific career has been confidence. Since releasing his first solo recordings at a precocious 18, Oberst’s vision has never wavered. He has altered his route, moving from his early electronic recordings to acidic folk to country-tinged and back again, but he has done so with a sure hand. Even when he released the wildly divergent Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning on the same day in early 2005, each possessed such clear vision that neither seemed anything but focused.
Late last year, Conor Oberst lost a close friend in Omaha to suicide. At the time, he was close to completing The People's Key, his seventh full-length under the Bright Eyes banner, an album for which he had returned home to Nebraska to record in bursts throughout 2010. Tucked into the album's waning moments is "Ladder Song", a purse-lipped heartbreaker Oberst wrote on piano out of grief.
The Bob Dylan comparisons that have fluttered noisily around Conor Oberst—and by extension, his signature brand Bright Eyes—have receded in recent years. But their memory remains, as Oberst, despite efforts to tone down and refine his sound, remains stubbornly hung up on the same methods, tics, and fixations. Dylan himself has gone through enough different incarnations to supply a line of action figures, and he’s still morphing: into a sinister but charming radio host, aging raconteur, and creepy Christmas-carol bard.
When Conor Oberst placed Bright Eyes in a state of suspended animation following 2007’s Cassadaga, leaving to make a few albums under his own name with the Mystic Valley Band, Oberst was so synonymous with the Bright Eyes franchise that few people seemed to consider it much more than a shift in moniker. But despite having employed a rotating cast of dozens, Bright Eyes has always been a band in Oberst’s eyes, with multi-instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott his collaborators and creative foils, and to miss that distinction is to misunderstand the communal aesthetic that underlies even the most singularly striking performances Oberst has created on his Bright Eyes releases. As if driving home that point, The People’s Key is the sound of a songwriter and a band coming into their own.
Mescaline-soaked narratives woven through hallucinatory images of Americana. Lewis G. Parker 2011 Like many before him who achieved brilliance in popular songwriting, Conor Oberst changed, in 2007, to become a different artist. The great humanist of a generation didn’t write many songs that were about concrete human experiences anymore, but contemplated new-age spirituality and mysticism instead.
Conor Oberst has suggested that Bright Eyes' seventh album, the first under the moniker since 2007's Cassadaga, will be the last as his most famous incarnation. It would be a shame to go out on such a disappointing note. Even those willing to follow Oberst's recent spiritual wanderings and ruminations exploring his own brand of voodoo-Castanedaisms or those forgiving enough to ignore this album's fruit-loops of found sound (mostly the ridiculous musings of Denny Brewer) have to balk at the synth-heavy compositions overly shot through with sonic shrapnel serving no purpose like "Approximate Sunlight," "Jejune Stars," and "Beginner's Mind." Oberst's voice trembles with the emotion of his youth, only ripped with spite instead of vulnerability.