The People's Key
Author: Nick Hanover
2/17/11 | Spectrumculture.com | www.spectrumculture.com | Record Review
On some level it's hard to listen to Bright Eyes' swan song The People's Key and not treat it as an entire album of gestures, of big signs pointing at the artistic freedom and credibility granted from a career's worth of otherwise fulfilling promises.The sonics of People's Key are all over the map, a freewheeling sampling of every studio trick and illusion up Conor Oberst and collaborator Mike Mogis' sleeves and even though it all sounds very pretty it doesn't gel in the way Bright Eyes' best output does. The album lacks the naked vulnerability and wide open spaces of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, which remains quite possibly Oberst's crowning achievement. People's Key, by contrast, feels huge but lost, grand but erratic- it's the audio equivalent of a teenager given a vast inheritance and no one to watch over them. Occasionally it leads to brilliance, as on the Jon Brion meets Nick Cave atmosphere of "Approximate Sunlight," which comes complete with the biggest kick drum you'll hear all year and vast amounts of backing vocals.Far more often it's like "Shell Games," which somehow manages to cram into its four minute running time samplings of Radiohead piano (specifically the verse from "Karma Police"), big thick '70s guitars and the cheesiest New Wave synth line this side of the Killers. Or it errs on the side of aimless, as is the case with "Haile Selassie," the namecheck of the title bearing no real relevance to anything whatsoever and its own cheesy synth line (these are, sadly, in surplus on this album) dangerously close to usurping the title of the one in "Shell Games."Relevance in general is a gigantic issue on The People's Key, with its use of utterly bizarre ramblings from Denny Brewer about aliens and fruit sprinkled liberally throughout. Oberst attempts to tie together a concept of Oneness, using bits and pieces of Rastafarianism and New Age philosophy to his own ends, hence the appearances of Haile Selassie and Mr. Brewer's AM signal sermonizing. But rather than twist these theories into something interesting or profound it just comes across as cultural tourism, pillaging from people for a purpose that's lost. Between this and the heavy handed production, the whole affair feels oddly impersonal, like Oberst is playing a prank on listeners and killing off the Bright Eyes moniker through arena rock.The largest exception, by far, is "Ladder Song," which comes near the end of the album and finds Oberst mostly alone at a piano, crooning to a friend who took his own life. With its talk of "traitors" who are always "changing sides," it has that confrontational feel Oberst used to bring to almost everything he did, a trait that may have turned off some listeners once was but at least felt true. There's so much honesty in Oberst's use of the phrase "precious friend of mine" that it almost overshadows the entirety of the album on its own.The disparity of that single moment and the rest of the album is indescribable. There's just no accounting for the divide in the brutally open songwriting there and the almost merciless pop heroics that are found in, say, a Cure-ripping track like "Jejune Stars." Given that The People's Key is the album Oberst is using to close the door on the Bright Eyes moniker, in part because he was tired of that "rootsy Americana shit," this all may unfortunately mean that Oberst is leaving behind the personal for the massive. If that's the case, it's one hell of a tragedy.