The People's Key
Author: Chris Deline
2/8/11 | Culturebully.com | www.culturebully.com | Record Review
Conor Oberst has been anything but unproductive since dropping the last Bright Eyes release nearly four years ago. Recording a pair of alt-country albums with the Mystic Valley Band in addition to dropping the not-so-folky debut album from Monsters of Folk with Jim James, M. Ward & Mike Mogis, Oberst has clearly demonstrated an interest in diversifying his range. Not surprising then that this trend continues into Oberst's new release, The People's Key; the album doing well to avoid the musical trends that have persisted through his long string of past Bright Eyes recordings. Aside from enlisting contributors ranging from Matt Maginn (Cursive) to Carla Azar (Autolux) to Clark Baechle (The Faint), The People's Key is still as diverse sounding as anything Oberst has done musically to this point: "I was really burnt out on that rootsy Americana shit," explained the musician in an interview with Billboard recently. "So I tried to steer clear of that." Perhaps even more important than the musical shift is Oberst's outward showing of lyrical ambition on the recording. Often pigeonholed as a songwriter, The People's Key finds Oberst complementing the musically diverse tracks with lyrics aimed at transcending reality, often looking to the metaphysical in hope of discovering some sort of truth. There may be no better example of this direction than the spoken monologue which runs throughout the album, starting with a lengthy introduction in "Firewall."Heard again in "A Machine Spiritual," "Jejune Stars" and album closer "One For You, One For Me," fringe musician and Refried Ice Cream frontman Denny Brewer opens the album with an extended rant, touching on examples of extraterrestrial influence on our culture before the track eventually picks up a slow roll, closing with Oberst vocally humming "Seen by I and I," a refrain which is echoed again as the album comes to its end. What follows is best described by Oberst himself, who explained recently to NY Magazine, "The one recurring theme in my writing, and in my life in general, is confusion." And that's exactly what's driving The People's Key?lyrically, at least: not knowing."The wheel of becoming erases the physical mind/Till all that remains is a staircase of information" croons the singer in the intermittently musically aggressive "Jejune Stars." "My private life is an inside joke, no one will explain it to me," reveals Oberst in "Shell Games," continuing by repeating "Now you are how you were when you were real" in "Approximated Sunlight." While one of the album's most musically inspired moments comes with the bleak, minimalist sound of "The Ladder Song"?Oberst's solo keyboard performance in tribute to a fallen friend?the most intriguing moment might come with the spirituality-focused "Triple Spiral." No stranger to dissecting his own beliefs in song, Oberst appears both lost in uncertainty at times and grounded in confidence at others. "I loved you triple spiral/Father, son and ghost/But you left me in my darkest hour when I needed you?" he cries out early in the song, while later appearing collected, focused on the illusion of his search, "That's the problem/An empty Sky/I fill it up with everything that is missing from my life." It's an interesting contrast, if only for its openly confused tone.In looking solely at The People's Key, the album reveals a writer with many questions and very few answers. But that isn't a negative?his undecided contemplation?but rather, quite the opposite. By the time that The People's Key is released the group's centerpiece will have turned 31, and whether or not this is related to his age, the new album shows Oberst's growing resolve to go beyond preaching his position, and instead look to what else there might be. Closing out the album in "One For You, One For Me" Brewer remarks, "When there is total enlightenment there will be peace." Through so much of his career Oberst has positioned himself to have some sort of answer; politically, ethically or otherwise. But rather than striking up a fight or championing a belief, as he's done so many times in the past, The People's Key appears to document Oberst's search for enlightenment. NPR's Robin Hilton has already lauded The People's Key as not only "the best record Bright Eyes has ever made" but "the best record the band's frontman, Conor Oberst, has ever been a part of." And if Oberst is able to stay on this path it might not be long before people again dust off those well worn Dylan comparisons in praising the singer/songwriter. This time around however, they might just be onto something.