The People’s Key
[Rating: 4 stars]
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.
Rumored to be the likely last album in the Bright Eyes catalog, a finale to a catalog stretching from the viscerally threadbare Letting Off of Happiness in 1998 through the synth-pop of 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the seventh entry in that canon is a culmination of sorts. Starting where he left off with the cosmic mysticism and new age spiritualism of Cassadaga, Oberst opens the album with samples of a friend waxing poetic on the Garden of Eden, good and evil, and circular nature of life, setting the tone for the ominous electric guitar crosshatch and funereal thuds of the epically rising and falling “Firewall.” The mood shifts from there with the bounding piano-pop and glammy guitars of “Shell Games,” with Oberst reflecting on his “death obsessed” days of political angst and righteous indignation and concluding that he can’t take on such responsibility by himself, establishing the theme of community that runs deep throughout the album. There’s churning power pop (“Jenune Stars,” “Triple Spiral”), dark-winged dirges (“Approximated Sunshine”), Lennon-esque piano ballads (“Ladder Song”) and tropical tinges in the title track, and it all fits together improbably well, adding up to an album that never lingers long in one place but always seems rooted in the idea that the temporality of life is an illusion and nothing is quite what it seems.
Now 31, Oberst has never sounded so confident as a vocalist and so willing to create ear candy as a songwriter. Where previous Bright Eyes albums often had a certain creaky openness to them, a willingness to find meaning in every crack and seam, these arrangements are polished to perfection but lose none of their conceptual heft in the process. And if Oberst’s albums with the Mystic Valley Band had a certain hazy, burned out country-rock charm, this album is far more focused and immediate, shifting from mood to mood and texture to texture like a more all-embracing version of Elliott Smith’s 1998 classic XO. The guitars are clean, the synths are kaleidoscopic and spectral, and the drums churn and whir with precision. More than ever, Bright Eyes sounds less like Conor Oberst and his backing band as it does a legitimate ensemble cast of players pulling in the same direction.
That’s not to say that Oberst doesn’t remain the dominant focal point in the mix, though, as he remains the sort of rare creative personality that steals every spotlight that gets within ten feet of him. And while the increased pop accessibility of these songs allows his words to shoulder less of the thematic weight of the album, Oberst is no less of a magnetic writer. To that extent, what is most striking is Oberst’s growing sense of himself and his apparent comfort with the notion that he doesn’t have to wear the heavy crown of the spokesman of his generation, content that he’s ultimately another link in a chain. “Stay awhile my inner child, I’d like to learn your tricks/ know what makes you tick/to nurse you when you’re sick,” he sings on “Beginner’s Mind,” as clear an embrace of his longing for simplicity as is found on any of his albums. By the end, the restlessly questioning tone gives way to the exploration of binaries (breadlines and billionaires, the master and the protégé, the bunker and the broadcast booth) in “One for You, One for Me,” concluding that there is ultimately no distinction and all is “I and I.” It’s not exactly happily ever after, but it’s as close to a resolution as he has ever come.
In the end, it would be a shame should this prove to be the last Bright Eyes release, as the Oberst-Mogis-Walcott foundation has proven sturdy enough to support their collective growth spurts while being flexible enough to allow each of them the freedom to experiment in other guises. As much as this album sounds like a final chapter, a loose-end knotting affair designed as a summary statement, there are no subplots left unresolved. But as interesting as the story has been so far, one gets the sense that the sequel could be even better.