The People's Key
Author: Andrew Bailey
3/3/11 | Discosalt.com | www.discosalt.com | Record Review
The People's Key is expected to be the final chapter for Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, and Nate Walcott's Bright Eyes, a legendary outfit with a revolving cast of characters that has spawned no less than four classic albums. This curtain call is also quite possibly the most ambitious yet, picking up right around where 2005 s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn left off. This isn't the Bright Eyes we've heard evolve over the past decade plus, but it is a fitting punctuation mark.One of the reasons that this is expected to be the last Bright Eyes production is that Oberst's tastes and ambitions have shifted noticably over the years. Obviously, changes with age are also a factor (he was a teenage prodigy when this all began, after all). Cassadaga, the band's previous album, was arbuably their most country-influenced yet, but Oberst has stated in the lead up to The People's Key that he's become"really burnt out on that rootsy Americana shit". So basically, rather than clinging forever to a name that comes with preconceived expectations, Oberst will be able to move forward and explore different things without that cloud hanging over him (of course, as we all know, musicians do have a way of changing their minds). But not before exhausting the last of the obvious Bright Eyes avenues.Unless Oberst and bandmates were planning to release a Spanish techno album ? and they probably weren't ? The People's Key is about as far as the Bright Eyes umbrella could have been stretched without becoming something altogether alien. That isn't to suggest that 10 songs on this LP are unrecognizable, because they aren't. Some of the formulas the band has subscribed to for years are still firmly in place. At the same time, this is easily the most electronic, drum heavy, rock 'n roll inspired album the band has ever put out.The album starts horribly, to be blunt. In front of wavy synths that serve as the lead-up to the actual song, "Firewall" features the first appearance of some weirdo buddy of Oberst's, who makes several appearances on this album, but none worse than the one right at the top. He rants mostly incoherently about Adolf Hitler, lizard-creatures, the Garden of Eden, and alternate universes orbiting counter-clockwise. Its pretentious, probably intended to be a little bit ironic, but most of all its the first appearance of a frustrating trend. Unfortunately, it also feels necessary, because these are all topics Oberst addresses ? even if briefly or vaguely ? throughout the course of the album. From someone who puts such an emphasis on narrative and literate songwriting, it shouldn't be a surprise to hear Oberst reference Jesus, Buddha, and the F?hrer (and Hitler directly). But we expect to hear this stuff from him. It would have been nice not to have to hear it from some rambling froot-loop as well.That big complaint aside, the musical composition of the album ? albeit different ? is actually pretty good. The percentage of "Firewall" that doesn't involve these senseless ramblings borders on fantastic, "Shell Games" is one of the better radio-natured songs Oberst has ever written, and "A Machine Spiritual (In the People's Key)" is another standout that really begs repeated listens. The album's closer, "One for You, One for Me", is every bit as terrific a song as there is here and, in a strange kind of way, sparks subtle reminders of LCD Soundsystem's "All My Friends". (Admittedly that's a bit of a left field, abstract parallel to draw.)Percussion is the thing that makes this such a new direction for Bright Eyes though. Drums have always held a place in their songwriting arsenal, but on this record they've been pushed to the very front and paired up with more synthesizer than ever before. Hell, "Triple Spiral" illustrates it all in one four minute chunk. Its a weird chameleon-like shift to undergo in four years or so, but if Cassadaga was the outfit's most outwardly Americana album, then this is as close to the opposite of that they've ever gone before. Its a curveball to be sure, but again, it really isn't leaving the band's boundaries so much as nuzzling right up close to the edges.This isn't the greatest thing Bright Eyes has ever done and if it does turn out that this is their farewell then it might not be the most neatly tied ribbon they could have put on their legacy either. Or maybe, just maybe, we'll look back down the road and see the positivity this album yields and be able to appropriately compare it to those gut-wrenchingly emotional days of Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground and realize, yeah, Bright Eyes covered all the ground they could and did so wonderfully.