The People's Key
Author: Andrew Shaw
2/15/11 | Buzzine | www.buzzinemusic.com | Record Review
The People's Key is the seventh studio album from Bright Eyes. Conor Oberst, the songwriting lynchpin, has offered other releases as a solo artist and with other groups, such is his prolific and exploratory nature. For a talent that so frequently offers creative outpourings at an extraordinary rate, it can feel like you're never too far from an Oberst release, in one form or another. However, it's been said that solo Oberst can sometimes falter beneath the excellent bar he establishes elsewhere, and with other projects, like Monsters of Folk, he may lack the laser-vision that his famed perception leads fans to expect. It's Bright Eyes that stimulates the most excitement in the majority of critics and crowds. There's an element of integrity that is apparent in everything Oberst touches. Whether one song is commercially successful or as artistically sound as another becomes irrelevant. The artist's heart is always pinned out with absolute honesty, without conceit. It's what the fans have come to expect; it's what they love. Much like elder statesmen of songwriting who sometimes fail to completely nail a subject, intension is key. The relationship between artist, subject, and audience is a three-way that doesn't require or involve critics. When Oberst doesn't decide on definition, he employs nuance better than almost any of his contemporaries, and that's what freaks many critics out. How can you analyze atmosphere?What Oberst achieves with Bright Eyes and The People's Key incorporates nuance, imagist-driven lyrics, new definitions, and the most commercially accessible release since 2005's I'm Wade Awake, It's Morning."Firewall," the opening track, launches proceedings with a spoken-word ramble from guest storyteller Denny Brewer. Abstract philosophies of ancient Samarian texts and Biblical mythology are served in a kind of new-age mash-up of beliefs, as an exploration into where we went wrong in history morphs into a theory of how to fix the errors of humanity. Synths line this tune as if we're hovering at the entrance to a spacecraft that's ready to take us away. We have to wait for the freaky tales of reptilian-human interbreeding to wind down before the familiar warmth of acoustic Bluesy-strumming and Oberst's voice bring us back to Earth. It's a captivating entrance.Arguably, with more synths, more electronically rounded arrangements, and the dropping off of Americana and Rootsier elements, Bright Eyes has produced an album that contains the most Pop to date. Oberst's voice has moved from the famous croaked longing. Taut vocal chords have grown less fevered, less pained by longing. We're reassured, in "Shell Games," that "...I'm still angry with no reason to be," but it's a sentiment that's delivered with a healthy dose of wry self-awareness as opposed to self-absorption. There are moments of real poetry. Strip away music and you're left with refined core elements that inspired fevered optimism when Oberst arrived all those years ago. "A Machine Spiritual; In The People's Key" is a strummed acoustic treat with clicks and whirling organs, but remove the catchy music and you're left with pure poetry where the internal meets the external. "Well, every head's a different world; Well, mine's concerned, I boarded up the windows; A catatonic plateau; A backwards black-faced minstrel show?"Bright Eyes is one of those bands that everyone loves to have an opinion on. A problem they face is that they're often judged on the expectation of others or for something that happened once before, elsewhere. Each one of these songs stands in the Here and the Now with its shoulders straight. Nothing here demands to be heard. This is a confident album that doesn't need approval. Maybe we've truly evolved from defining ourselves in terms of what we fight or what we don't believe. Maybe we become what we embrace and what we want to restore within each experience."Beginners Mind" is a reference to Zen practice and, like Zen, it's as charismatic and enigmatic as it is simple and accessible. It's a document of how to restart, begin again, accept things as they are, and be calm if not entirely happy. It's a real treat. Acoustic balances with electric; tempo dances with melody. Complicated concepts attain easy sing-a-long accessibility. Understand this track and you'll unlock the album. Stop thinking what you were previously thinking, critic or fan; drop into the spaces between thoughts. Be here now with Bright Eyes. It's a thoroughly good moment.For Fans Of: Monsters of Folk, Iron & WineStandout Tracks:"A Machine Spiritual; in the People's Key," "Beginners Mind," "Firewall"