The People's Key
Author: Meryl Trussler
2/15/11 | Blurt | www.blurt-online.com | Record Review
The People's Key is definitely maybe the last Bright Eyes release ever, so I guess it's time to savour the remaining salt from Conor Oberst's cheeks. The band's past output demands that this be the crescendo of all crescendos: some kind of frenetic, schizophrenic, glory-dripping crown of an album, replete with barrelling snares, funereal horns, and vocal cracks deeper than the San Andreas Fault. An absolute superlative.But, for whatever reason, it isn't.Perhaps it's that bigness which spoiled Bright Eyes for Bright Eyes. That the more personal (and usually painful) the project became, the more it seemed to balloon and drift away from its creators, becoming this representative experience of the modern depressive poet. Many have entertained the thought that the more Oberst has sobered up, the less interesting his output has become; 2007's Cassadaga was no stunner, either, and the gritless Mystic Valley Band songs could only ever have survived under that disparate moniker. It's not even that the disillusioned masses subsist solely on a diet of pain. It's surely the clarity of all emotions that is missed, now - the way the sprawling 'Let's Not Shit Ourselves (to Love or to be Loved)' on Lifted (a.k.a. Lifted, Or: The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground) expressed being battered, bruised and betrayed and feeling the last vestige of hope all the more keenly for it. In all fairness, there is only so much a fan can expect from a non-charting musician in terms of supplying our demand. We can expect them to show up to gigs and play competently (a point on which Oberst has actually improved), to charge fair prices, and to not smack us in the face with the mic-stand. Pandering to our generic preference, not so much. So. We accept the move towards straight "rocking" represented on The People's Key, and love it or leave it. It's not easy to love or leave The People's Key entirely. While it's undeniably professional, there's some heart missing. It opens on a seven-minute growler called 'Firewall', on which Some Guy waffles on about the descendents of Satan and the essential balance of good and evil in the universe with no particular coherence. Eventually a dusky guitar riff cuts in, and stays low throughout, immediately killing off suggestions of timpani and backbeats, like a song that doesn't want to be caught. Perhaps it's a foil for 'Shell Games': the first song to be released, and very much an attention-seeker with its poppy piano, synths and solos you'd sooner expect from The Killers. Though there's some sensibilities here borrowed from Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, nothing on that album sounded like it would translate so well to a stadium as this does. Its chorus is immediately memorable, almost childish: "here it come, that heavy love / we're never gonna move it alone". There's even an "everyone together now" moment. All things considered, a bit weird. 'Jejune Stars' has some pleasant indie-rock fallbacks, speeding through the different voices on electric guitar: the jangle, layered and mottled like thorns, the thunder, all unfortunately ironed out in Mike Mogis' production. 'Approximate Sunlight' treads some old ground with its slow, dusty beat and doleful Morricone guitar, but breaks away into brief, swirling tin whistles somewhere in the middle: some sour flavour of jealousy seeps through in "all I do / is follow you / just follow you / just follow you around", and it feels just like old times for a moment. Soon after, 'A Machine Spiritual (In the People's Key)', though it has a similarly comfortable, dirty-Kokomo sway to it, kinda wrecks the vibe with the most nasal vocals Oberst has produced since he was 13. 'Triple Spiral' is rock and roll all right, but like its neighbours, it has a very fast and charmless way of introducing itself, almost without self-respect; none of these songs really enshrine their best melodies, where there are any.Thank goodness for penultimate track, 'Ladder Song', which lets its wet, cantering piano shine out unhindered, and recalls how well Bright Eyes do moody waltzes. The stripped-down format also lets us actually hear the song's simple, existential lyrics: "no one knows where the ladder goes / you're gonna lose what you love the most / you're not alone in anything / you're not unique in dying".'One For Me, One For You' rounds off the album, plodding along as benevolently as the now-oldie 'Easy/Lucky/Free' but with far more basic lyrics, once again. "One for the righteous, one for the ruling class," he ekes out slowly over two wine-glassy chords, "one for the tyrant, one for the slaughtered lamb / one for the struggle, one for the lasting peace / one for you, and one for me." It's a little doe-eyed, but it's affable. It actually seems to be smiling. Maybe that's what's so disturbing - the fact that Bright Eyes is basically leaving many of us behind, with all our angst and vitriol. They're making music now that expresses, if not happiness, a basic level of contentment necessary to live."That's love," Some Guy continues to blather as the two chords slow-dance towards the album's end. "Uh. Compassion, love, whaddyacallit... What's that?" Another voice mutters mercy. "Mercy." And that's the last word, mercy. Has Oberst made peace with his past? Has he forgiven and received forgiveness? And in reaching that state, did he somewhat sacrifice the far more universal appeal he'd found in misery?I mean, I'm happy for the guy. The album is alright; touching, in parts. But it's 2011 now; 20 people were shot in Arizona, Haiti is still in utter chaos, there's a revolution happening in Egypt, and my cat died just a few weeks ago. I guess I wasn't prepared for Bright Eyes to find "mercy" just yet.