The People's Key
Author: Jim Beviglia
2/15/11 | Culturemap.com | www.culturemap.com | Record Review
Conor Oberst is at his best when he's at his least prolific. Back when he was indie-rock's next great songwriting hope, his fans would patiently wait out the two or three-year delays for his new albums, knowing he would come up with something great. In 2008 and 2009 however, Oberst knocked off a pair of albums and joined the quasi-supergroup Monsters Of Folk for another, but delivered nothing anywhere near the quality of former triumphs like Lifted?, or I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning.Well, it's been a little more than a year since his last proper album, a nice breather, and the time off seems to have done him good. Perhaps it's also telling that Oberst has resurrected the Bright Eyes collective that aided him in those wonderful albums I mentioned above. Reunited with BE bandmates Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, Oberst is back to his old ambitious self on The People's Key, one of the most consistently captivating albums in his peripatetic career.The good news is that Oberst has ditched the desolate folk and alt-country trappings that hampered his last few releases. Those genres seemed to rein in Oberst's lyrical flights of fancy, leaving him sounding disturbingly conventional. The People's Key deep-sixes any normality right away, as it leads off with a strange spoken-word monologue by a musician buddy of Oberst's named Denny Brewer, who mixes Biblical history with sci-fi conjecture.Brewer shows up throughout the album, adding bits of his unique worldview to several songs. It's hard to take him too seriously, considering his voice sounds like a cross between Hank Hill and Fred Imus. In any event, Oberst does a much better job conveying the album's overarching themes concerning the intersection between theology and technology in his questing yet energetic songs.This is the peppiest and catchiest that Bright Eyes has ever sounded, thanks to New Wave textures that add bright colors to meditations like "Shell Games" and "Triple Spiral." The former is a head rush of a single, Oberst preparing himself for the "heavy love" that's going to set him free. The latter, galloping along with buzzy guitars, sounds like Oberst fronting Weezer, and, believe it or not, that turns out to be a good thing.While it's easy to roll one's eyes at all of the New Age-y musings, Oberst does well to balance it out with some real heart. It also helps that he can still turn a killer one-liner here and there, like "We're post-everything" in the dirge-like "Approximate Sunlight," or "I'll die young at heart" in "Jejune Stars." He doesn't sing with the wildness that he did back in his early days; he sounds here more like a level-headed sage offering wisdom beyond his years.The People's Key really picks up steam at the end, when Oberst's philosophy no longer provides all the answers. "Beginner's Mind" mourns the loss of innocence, while the piano lament "Ladder Song" has the wounded grace of a classic Neil Young ballad. On these songs, his search for solace is a lonely one and neither religion nor science seem to give any comfort.Bright Eyes ends things with a doozy, as is their tradition: "One For You, One For Me" finds Oberst railing against man-made dichotomies by offering toasts to seeming opposites; all of this coming over a bed of lush synthesizers. It's like hearing "Chimes Of Freedom" in an arcade. Some of the old quivering emotion shows up in his voice when he pays homage to a classic Rastafarian tenet at the song's end: "You and me, that is an awful lie/It's an I and I."Indeed, that moving call for unity sums up a lot of what this album seems to be saying. That Oberst brings such heavy themes in front of his audience without having them sound like medicine is a testament to both his skill and the influence of Mogis and Walcott.Oberst has been hinting that this might be the last Bright Eyes album. That would be a crying shame, but, if it's true, The People's Key would be a heckuva way to go out.