The People's Key
Author: William Ward
2/17/11 | Washington Square News | www.nyunews.com | Record Review
Ever since Conor Oberst first told us about this woman who was in a plane crash that ended in a birthday party at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, he has been one of the most polarizing figures in the indie rock scene.What always made Oberst's music were his personable lyrics and his hook-generating voice. With "People's Key," his latest album, however, Oberst has taken some risks, with varying degrees of success. Oberst has always expected patience from his listeners, but with this effort, some of the tracks have extensive periods of funeral march rhythm that don't develop into much ("Approximate Sunlight," "Ladder Song"). In other songs, Oberst tries to amp it up, featuring much more electric instrumentation than he's known for ("Jejune Stars," "Triple Spiral"). The latter is infinitely more listenable than the former, because Oberst's vocal delivery is more aesthetically pleasing. In the slower tunes, he tries to morph his vocals into this odd half-talking, half-singing mode.This kind of depth usually makes an album seem more dynamic. But in this case it seems to work against Oberst. It is hard to discern any real connecting thread that makes the wide variety of moods seem part of the same album.Oberst's lyrical content is surprisingly lacking. Not to say that the lyrics aren't good, but they lack real depth. Oberst's lyrics used to be unusually specific. He is, at heart, a storyteller. On his former albums, most of the songs were thematically linked. Lost love, sanctity of childhood, wrestling with mortality; all of these were identifiable and real issues that spoke to Oberst's listeners. These themes are missing in this album."People's Key" was one of the new year's most anticipated releases, but it feels like Oberst dropped the ball. Oberst was trying to respond to some of his critics, showing how versatile he can be. He should probably go back to writing tongue-in-cheek traveling songs. Those are fun.