The People's Key
Author: Aaron Williams
2/15/11 | Louisville Cardinal | www.louisvillecardinal.com | Record Review
Singer, songwriter Conor Oberst has been a part of numerous musical acts and groups, but the band Bright Eyes remains to be his most well-known project. Bright Eyes, consisting of Oberst, the multi-talented musician and producer Mike Mogis, and trumpet and piano player Nate Walcott, has released a total of nine albums with their tenth preparing to drop on Feb. 15. The album, entitled "The People's Key," will be the group's first album since 2007's "Cassadaga."In the four year interval between the two albums, Oberst released two albums that had a decidedly Americana, folk sound. First was his self-titled album in 2007 and then "Outer South" in 2009. However, Oberst abandons the alternative country route almost entirely on "The People's Key," opting for a more alternative rock style on what he claims will be Bright Eyes' tenth and final album.The album begins with the eerie first track, "Firewall." The track begins with the oddly captivating voice of Denny Brewer, guitarist for the band Refried Ice Cream, as he rambles through a peculiar story about the universe and the origins of life on Earth which blends science, science fiction and religious belief into a blurred collage of humanity's attempts to explain our existence."Firewall" is dark and gritty and Oberst demonstrates that his knack for writing ambiguous lyrics hasn't lessened as he sings about his encounter with the hologram of a girl in an abandoned theme park and muses on how quickly the light can become the dark. His vocals echo early on and are accompanied only by guitar, but the song builds towards the end, adding drums and backup vocals. The energy builds to the climax and is enough to prepare the listener for the second track and the album's first single, "Shell Games." In contrast to "Firewall," "Shell Games" is more along the lines of pop rock, and features melodic piano and guitar that keep pace with the up tempo rhythm of the bass and drums, all while helping Oberst deliver a strong, catchy chorus in between verses dealing with the weight of love and his own personal struggles.Another upbeat track from the album, "Haile Selassie," is named after the regent of Ethiopia who is held to be the returned Messiah by the Rastafarian faith. "Pilgrim across the water, we are the same, brother," Oberst sings on "Haile Selassie," the album's fifth track. "Selassie" is crammed full of Rastafarian references, from the Queen of Sheba to Zion, and though Oberst can be heard shouting "one love!" in the third verse, the track is far from a reggae anthem. It's yet another alternative rock tune with entrancing guitar and an appealing chorus. In fact, the sound Bright Eyes chose to go with on "The People's Key" makes for several beguiling tracks that are sure to rack up the play counts in any alternative rock lover's music library, including the vigorous "Jejune Stars" with its thundering drums, and the lively "Triple Spiral."That's not to say that "The People's Key" is a one dimensional album. Oberst has never lacked for depth or range in his songwriting, and this Bright Eyes album is no exception. The title track, "A Machine Spiritual (In The People's Key)," resembles something a listener might have heard on an older Bright Eyes album. The band strips down to a raw, sultry beat while the pedal steel mourns in the background on "Approximated Sunlight" and the melancholy piano combined with the wail of Oberst's poignant vocals on "Ladder Song" will certainly touch the sympathetic listener when they hear him croon, "Don't it just make you want to cry, precious friend of mine?" Finally, the closing track, "One For You, One For Me," seems to sum up all the motifs of "The People's Key" in a single ambient sound heard over drums that are characteristic of Bright Eyes' 2005 release "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn." Overall, Conor Oberst and Bright Eyes have delivered again with the group's tenth studio album. There will be some fans who will not like the new approach the band took on this project, but most will be happy simply to hear new music from Bright Eyes, and it doesn't hurt that this could be argued as the band's best work to date. For that, "The People's Key" receives a healthy four out of five stars.