The People's Key
Author: Brett Warner
2/4/11 | Ology.com | www.ology.com | Record Review
So, Conor Oberst has put out a new Bright Eyes album, his first since 2007's outgoing and organic Cassadaga. What's changed since then? Well, if you're like me, you probably spend a lot less time drinking and falling asleep on the subway with his trademark warbling echoing through your earbud-nestling lobes. Still, Mr. Oberst's evocative, borderline impressionist lyrics and (especially) his as-of-late densely produced, meticulously arranged songs of confusion and anger, longing and laziness have never sounded better than they do on The People's Key (in stores and online February 15). Picking up where 2005's post-punking, electro-popping Digital Ash in a Digital Urn left off, The People's Key is a rousing and affecting effort from indie folk's favorite sad sack.The tuneful new album opens with the baffling, bizarre ramblings of Refried Ice Cream guitarist Denny Brewer, spewing off about reptilian aliens, alternate dimensions, and the expanding universe. It's an unexpected but appropriate segue into "Firewall", with its abstract prose evoking talking birds, female holograms, and "veins full of flat cherry cola" over ghost town electric guitar licks. It's a misleading introduction to a record more inspired by the carefree '70s rock & roll gospel of REO Speedwagon ("Shell Games") than the drunken, insular poetry of ye olden Bright Eyes records. "My private life is an inside joke, no one will explain it to me," Oberst sighs, transitioning into the fireball punk opening of "Jejune Stars", an upright and forcefully plucked head bopper with a borderline New Wave chorus and retro synthesizer middle eight. "Approximated Sunlight" could even pass for Dummy-era Portishead for a minute or two with its gloomy trip-hop keyboards and tightly processed vocals. "I used to dream of time machines, now it's been said we're post-everything," Oberst sings over a downtempo kit drum inter-cut with various tape loops and oddball vocal samples. There's more than one ghost in "A Machine Spiritual (In The People's Key)", beginning with the chopped, cut up acoustic guitar strumming and surging through layer upon layer of gushing, angelic synth orchestration. It's not all soul-less programming, though?"Haile Selassie" and "Triple Spiral" bounce and march on terse, crunching electric guitar power chords and squealing keyboard arpeggios, the latter even dripping with throwback '50s-style sock hop reverb. The People's Key really comes into its own on the astounding third act, starting with the very welcome acoustic guitar strumming of "Beginner's Mind", building into a breathtaking crescendo of double-tracked vocals, ambient brushstrokes, and soothing female background vox. "Beat and beat it out," Oberst gushes, "Leave a drum that makes no sound? a snuff film on the Jumbotron for all the world to see." On "Ladder Song", his canary in a coalmine voice shakes beautifully over a solo upright piano. "No one knows where the ladder goes," goes the new album's chillingly minimalist highlight, "You're gonna lose what you love the most." On an LP filled to the brim with more than enough production flourishes, it's a refreshingly bleak return to the lo-fi Bright Eyes we fell in love with more than a decade ago.Coming to a close with the lush "Easy/Lucky/Free" soundalike "One For You, One For Me" and more non-sequitur rambling from Mr. Brewer, The People's Key is an admirably complex new effort that demands several listens to unravel its pagan poetry and carefully plotted sonic details. We've given up pretending to know what he's singing about these days, but Conor Oberst continues to sing it extraordinarily well over songs that feel more like finely constructed vessels than the faint acoustic guitar sketches of his (and our) youth.Sum-ology: Fans of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn will find much to love on the new Bright Eyes record, a densely-produced, fully formed, tightly constructed mash-up of '70s rock, electronica, and uptempo folk pop.