The People's Key
Author: John Downey
2/15/11 | 411mania.com | www.411mania.com | Record Review
When reviewing music that has high expectations set on it (like this album), most critics compare the new stuff to the artist's "classics", resulting in either undue praise or the work being written off as a disappointment. The People's Key is almost an electronic album, published under a name whose best work--I'm Wide Awake It's Morning--consists of acoustic work. Comparing the two would be rather difficult and possibly reductive of the quality of both albums, so I'll first write about this album as though it were the work of a new band and work my way back to Conor Oberst, the main force behind Bright Eyes. Trying to process this album in a vacuum is practically impossible, but trust me, I would have dismissed this album as one of the worst releases of the year if I didn't try.The first thing that strikes me about The People's Key is how unfocused it is. The album aims for a spiritual view, telegraphed by some of the song titles, but the at-times erratic writing doesn't match the composition of the songs, and the spirituality is all over the place, using Rastafarianism and Christianity as crutches rather than points to jump off from. "Jejune Stars" chugs along happily, like Bruce Springsteen's "Dancer In The Dark", with a chorus that reads as "So I go, umbrella under my arm, into the green of the radar/How did it get so dark in the day?/It's just so bizarre, is it true what we're made of?/Why do I hide from the rain?" Fine, they're going for dynamic dichotomies, but it is far too simple of an approach to writing songs, especially considering how overwritten (see next paragraph) most of the songs on here are.The second thing that strikes me about this album is how much potential there is with this sound. If this were a band's debut, I would be eagerly awaiting their second album, under the hopeful assumption that the band would be able to identify the faults with their sound and have the know-how and gumption to correct them. (I made that mistake with Vampire Weekend, but whatever.) The People's Key comes closest to resembling Destroyer's Kaputt, Braids's Native Speaker, and Beach House's Teen Dream in sound?funky synths, every song gaining momentum by itself?but the albums on those songs were structured to compliment the lyrics. The grander the sound, the fewer words you need to write. Scale back on the word count, bring the vocals to the forefront, get rid of that one guy who interrupts the album from time to time spouting incoherent gibberish about reptiles and Hitler (no, I'm not making that up), and we'd be dealing with something great. Right?And now I'm forced to talk about Conor Oberst (dammit). Oberst has never been a great vocalist, and his writing was half of the reason that anyone cared about Bright Eyes in the first place. I can't blame the guy for trying to expand his sound (if only to try to get his critics to describe him in a way besides "Bob Dylan for the new generation"), but he is barely on this thing?his words are far from the focus of the album, and are often placed well into the background, as if he expects his audience to listen to a Bright Eyes album for the guitar work. If this kind of music wasn't already done to (practically) perfection by other bands, I might be kinder to it. As it stands, The People's Key is a massive disappointment.That said, this is probably the best massive disappointment I've heard in some time?certainly better than the disastrous Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and the static Cassadaga, as well as every Oberst side project since 2005. Oberst may have been shunted aside by all of his musician friends in the mix, but they have a lot of fun on the album, more concerned with creating the next pretty synth line than coherence (exhausting in the long haul but a thrill in short spurts). It can be comfortably thrown on in the background of any low-key get-together between twentysomething don't-call-us-hipsters without offense or protest. Also, while the album is overwritten, there is some great writing here?you'll just need the lyric sheet out and a repressed gag reflex concerning bullshit spirituality in order to find it. The writing is at the forefront of "Ladder Song", Oberst's best song in years and, not coincidentally, the simplest song on the album.