The People's Key
Author: David Bevan
2/14/11 | Pitchfork.com | www.pitchfork.com | Record Review
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. When he sat down later to record the song in the home studio he co-founded with Bright Eyes producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis, Oberst opted to play it on an old keyboard rather than the grand piano their new setup afforded him. The end result-- eerily similar to "Sunrise, Sunset", a song from 2000's eye-opening Fevers & Mirrors-- sounds very much in tune with Bright Eyes' beginnings: manic and rickety, grave and strangely gripping, Oberst spitting his words up as though it's just as painful to share them as it is to keep them inside. Here, on what the one-time wunderkind has called this project's final ride, its playlist's final addition stands completely alone both sonically and otherwise. "Ladder Song" is not just a bracing tribute, it's a throwback glimpse at how much has changed or not changed at all in the way Oberst has chosen to present himself and his songwriting.Well over a decade after its inception, it's easy to forget that before Oberst's lyrical abracadabra on 2002's Lifted garnered "New Dylan!" hosannas, the Bright Eyes brand got its first bit of traction amongst emo kids. Leagues of them. Oberst was a pin-up-- his hair always swept perfectly across his sad, massive, Milk-Dud eyes-- fit to erupt in small rooms like those in which he first recorded. In the years that followed Lifted's release, he left behind his handcrafted, attic-pop leanings to fully embrace American roots music. It was a path he hit all the harder as his audience and profile grew. From pure folk to ham-fisted honky tonky to the classic rock of his Mystic Valley band, each subsequent release employed a recording method to match the ambition of Oberst's increasingly dystopian lyricbook. That trajectory reached a pivotal point in 2007's Cassadaga, a cinematic, string-embossed epic that found Oberst in all those modes at once, engaging even further with themes both mystic and apocalyptic. Despite its flaws, that record seemed the loudest expression of what Bright Eyes had seemingly always been about: articulating the world's many weights, as he meant to carry them around. The People's Key, its sci-fi successor, breaks from the narrative. It doesn't articulate much at all.While a few traces of pedal steel remain, Oberst, Mogis, and recently anointed permanent member/keyboardist Nate Walcott (with few exceptions Bright Eyes' cast tended to revolve) have given the former's songwriting a new sonic skin. Gone is the "rootsy Americana shit" he recently told Billboard he was burnt out on. In its place, the three have settled into a middle space somewhere between the distorted crunch of Oberst's short-lived Desaparecidos project and 2005's electro-pop experiment Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. On the hard-charging "Jejune Stars", new wave synths piggyback power chords, while "Triple Spiral" spikes meatier guitar work with organ and a number of space-bound key flourishes. Walcott's contributions in particular-- like on the hiccupping "Haile Selassie"-- digitize a lot of the pop elements that distinguish Bright Eyes from Oberst's work elsewhere. It's as well-assembled and produced a set of songs as you'd expect from pros like these guys, but unfortunately, much of it tends to ring empty. What's missing is Oberst.As "Jejune Stars" comes to a close you'll find a short interstitial recording of Denny Brewer, a Texas musician whose husky, some-might-say-batshit musings on other dimensions and extra-terrestrial, ancient reptilian life forms also comprise most of the album's found sound interstitials and intro, a Bright Eyes tradition. In talking about the etymology of the word "pomegranate," he renacts the moment the fruit got its name: "I don't know why it's called a pomegranate, but it looks like a pomegranate. No matter what language you spoke it in, syllables are frequencies." Though his brayed delivery tends to be a tipping point for many, Oberst's lyrical acumen has always been his work's great strength. Whether it was four chords for a love song or three to size up of everything that's wrong with Right Now, he's been able to rule a recording from the start. Omaha, East Village, the simpler the better: Oberst could connect in his own way. But here, he's occupying a frequency all by himself, arranging words that do wonders harmonically, yet mean next to nothing side-by-side. Through and through, this record's overarching themes of "oneness" and connectivity feel painfully blurred by the fragmented, illusory nature with which Oberst shares them. It's as though he's fallen down any and every rabbit hole he could-- Rastafarian imagery makes room for shamanic allusions, futurist tail-chasing, half-baked philosophizing, aimless retrospection, Bono-like levels of evangelizing (see closer "One for You, One for Me"), dead end time travel and one very short, psychedelic walk into a place named the "Land of Tomorrow".That very last bit comes from opener "Firewall", a song whose sharp-toothed guitar figure and holy shit build can't help but feel hollow once Oberst disconnects as early as he does. When his voice is distorted into barely intelligible warbles during the strummy quiver of "Beginner's Mind" it seems fitting, just as it sounds perfectly believable when, on "A Machine Spiritual (In the People's Key)", he says he'll "float into the ether." None of these songs are quite as overwrought as those found on Cassadaga, a record with enough instrumental soul there at times to carry the load anytime he went rogue. But with the plain exception of "Ladder Song," the slick sonics here make the rest of the pack all the more cavernous and impersonal, a long ways from where the whole story began. Every line is laid with the rich sense of rhythm and texture that he's mastered over the years, but it still adds up to very little: a wildly spiritual record without any spirit.