The People's Key
Author: Kiani Angus-Torres
2/15/11 | NJ Underground | www.thenjunderground.com | Record Review
In the three-plus years since Conor Oberst took a hiatus from his band Bright Eyes, his fans felt cut short somehow, as though stuck in some kind of ellipses. Re-listening to each record over the years left us dry-mouthed, thirsting for more of our Generation Y Morrisey, our American Poet, our Whiney White Boy. In that time, we finished earning our useless degrees, got jobs and then lost them, moved to Austin, Philadelphia and Brooklyn, then back with our parents, and then to Queens. We got married with "First Day of My Life" as our wedding song; we hummed "I Believe In Symmetry" as we buried our grandparents of The Greatest Generation; we put "Feel Good Revolution" and "Happy Birthday To Me (Feb. 15th)" on mixes for High School lovers found on facebook. So when The People's Key was made available via free streaming on NPR, we were all but elated, or as elated angsters get while maintaining their cool. The record begins with what has become a signature of Oberst: an absurdist spoken word narrative, this time told in a Southern drawl by Texas mystic Randy Brewer, whose cosmic musings are threaded throughout The People's Key in interludes. Brewer details his philosophy on the continuum of time, space and love in the universe for over two minutes before our old familiar friend chimes in with a prominent finger picked electric melody, as he sings "I do my best to sleep though the caterwaul/ The classicist, the posture in avant-garde?" And once again, with a clever turn of SAT words and a clean-nailed click of the touch pad, Oberst has us under his thumb as he's pressed us into the mold of the new Adult Alternative.The nine tracks that follow are more of the usual for Bright Eyes, only slightly more polished and likable than his previous endeavors. The production quality is a success as Oberst's intricately layered orchestral arrangements and electro-synth soundscapes are a comfortable cotton-poly blend, equal parts organic and synthetic. There are very obvious revisions of his last record, Casadega, among this set, as "Shell Games" can easily be mistaken for "If The Brakeman Turns My Way;" while "One For You, One For Me" is a twist on "I must belong somewhere." It's clear that Oberst would like to reiterate his explorations into Eastern philosophy, as well as his capacity to make a darn good record. Two of the standout tracks of The People's Key are placed in the aesthetically pleasing positions of #3 and #8. The third track, "Jejune Stars," is a punk riff paired with Oberst's go-to emo stream of consciousness about his fears, whose chorus states flatly "Why do I hide from the rain?" With "Beginner's Mind" he's lifted his ears from the soil and leveled out his craft, as the tide-pool deep lyrics are a self-aware critique of the process of his resurfacing:A cocktail napkin epitaphSome psycho babel telegramMessage written in the sandThe tide rolls inSwear you'll do the oppositeOf all those tangled hypocritesWho say that the experiment has failedDon't go thereYou're getting nowhereYou're getting nowhereNowhere, indeed Conor. You've still got it, kid, but as the tides change, we need something that changes with it.The release of Bright Eyes' The People's Key this week is not without its seemingly ironic timeliness. Just last fall, Jonathan Franzen immortalized Bright Eyes' legacy in his best-selling epic novel Freedom. The character Richard Katz, himself a has-been Grammy-winning indie rocker from the early 90s, has gone to see Oberst at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C. as he toured for the album 'Lifted Or The story is in the soil?.':"He was the real deal, a boy genius, and thus all the more insufferable to Katz. His Tortured Soulful Artist shtick, his self-indulgence in pushing his songs past their natural limits of endurance, his artful crimes against pop convention: he was performing sincerity, and when the performance threatened to give sincerity the lie, he performed his sincere anguish over the difficulty of sincerity." (369-370)This question of sincerity is all too prominent, as the long awaited The People's Key has been streaming on NPR.org, to the same crowd that so gleefully consumed Franzen's novel just a few months ago. It seems Bright Eyes has, in fact, reached his limits to the point where he only has the flattest form of sincerity. Just as we've moved on from standing room to seated venues, or from sushi to steakhouses, the once raw Bright Eyes is now served medium well, with a side of locally grown kale.