The People's Key
Author: Nick Stropko
2/17/11 | Drexel University Triangle | www.thetriangle.org | Record Review
This is a fairly momentous time in indie rock history, as Bright Eyes, the moniker for Conor Oberst's band, is releasing "The People's Key," which Oberst has declared to be the group's last album.Oberst was only 15 years old when Bright Eyes began in 1995. The group has released ten albums since and has greatly impacted the indie genre. Though Bright Eyes is known for both the roots-rock, Americana sound and highly emotional, introspective lyrics, "The People's Key" marks a significant departure from anything Bright Eyes has previously released. Instead of steel guitars and fiddles, the album is laden with synthesizers and studio effects.It's difficult to emphasize how different "The People's Key" really is from any Bright Eyes album before it. Distortion and upbeat, even triumphant, songs play a prominent role on the album. In contrast with Oberst's usual fare of personal lyrics, "The People's Key" deals with far grander themes, pondering the universe and the place of people on earth. This is supplemented by the near-incoherent ramblings of Denny Brewer, lead singer of Refried Ice Cream, whose thoughts on the extra-terrestrial and the nature of the universe provide an interesting context for the album, especially when accompanied by Oberst's creepy atmospheric noises and tones.So, it's different - that much is quite apparent from first listening, even with an extremely limited knowledge of Bright Eyes' previous works. However, whether or not the album is successful is a slightly more complicated matter to assess. Once one gets over the shock of Oberst's new sound, it becomes clear that his collection of songs is quite solid. "The People's Key" features excellent catchy melodies, interesting instrumentation and is in general a well put together album of music. It is well produced by Mike Mogis (Cursive, Rilo Kiley, The Good Life) and features a decidedly mature sound.However, this is what may alienate some of Oberst's more loyal fans. The album is slick and professional - and Bright Eyes first became prominent for what some would consider a lack of these characteristics. In particular, one thing that is greatly varied from Oberst's earlier works is his vocal delivery. On older records, his voice wavers; he yells, shouts, whispers and wears his heart on his sleeve by expelling his lyrics however possible. The effect is not always attractive, but it is undeniably strong, making every song highly personal. Consider this next to "The People's Key:" Oberst takes very few vocal risks, singing on key with little variation. His singing style is not lost, but it is altered slightly.This change is representative of the whole album. While his fragile self shines through on "Ladder Song," a track composed about Oberst's friend who committed suicide, the album generally does not deal with introspection much. Whether or not this is a good thing, though, is really up to the listener. Some may prefer the new style; others might not.Regardless of any changes that Oberst has made in the style of music, "The People's Key" is an album that serves quite well as his swan song, at least for this particular incarnation of his. It may be different, but the most important things - the songs - are still there in spades. It's a great listen from front to back, and is still very much recognizable as a Bright Eyes album. At this point, one can only hope for music of this caliber from Conor Oberst in the future, if not under the name Bright Eyes.