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Bright Eyes: ‘The People’s Key’

Chris Collum | Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Conor Oberst has already made more folk-rock masterpieces than most guys with guitars riding the coffee shop circuit could ever dream of. But don’t expect another one here. America’s favorite Midwestern Hippie-boy obviously isn’t very interested in hushed acoustic ballads this time around.

Look no farther than the bouncy synth-rock of first single “Shell Games” for confirmation of that fact.

“I was really burnt out on that rootsy Americana” Oberst said in a recent interview with Billboard. “So I tried to steer clear of that.”

The above statement certainly made many anxious as to what exactly “The People’s Key” was going to sound like. After a somewhat disappointing showing in 2007’s country-tinged mystical “Cassadaga,” and a few good-but-not-great records as Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band and Monsters of Folk (with other high-profile folk rockers), it appeared that Oberst was over the proverbial hill, fast on his way to becoming a gimmick.

“The People’s Key” does not dispel these notions immediately. Like many Bright Eyes albums, it opens with a seemingly absurd spoken-word introduction, this time presented by some washed-up West Texas acidhead cowboy that Oberst apparently met since the last time Bright Eyes was in the studio. The cowboy narrator spews on and on about some bizarre theory that all evil in humanity is derived from an alien reptilian race that landed their UFO in the Garden of Eden. Not an auspicious beginning for a notoriously all-over-the-map artist.

After the cowboy is finished with his rant, however, opening track “Firewall” is surprisingly good, slowly escalating into a crescendo that finally erupts into life in the last minute of the song. As previously mentioned, second track and first single “Shell Games” is a very good airy keyboard-driven number—credit is due to longtime keyboardist Nate Walcott. It’s the kind of pop song that everyone knew Oberst was capable of, but that few thought he would ever write.

After “Shell Games,” the fuzzed bombast of “Jejune Stars” comes as somewhat of a shock. This is about as far away from whispery folk as Oberst and company have ever dared.

Elsewhere on the album, Bright Eyes occasionally strays back towards more familiar musical territory, such as in piano ballad “Ladder Song” — which recalls “If the Brakeman Turns My Way” from “Cassadaga” — but more times than not the band avoids anything resembling the aforementioned “rootsy” sound. The craziest part about that is that it works. These songs sound absolutely fantastic.

Lyrically, however, it is painfully obvious that Oberst has not done as much rebooting as might be desired. As on “Cassadaga” and much of his recent work away from Bright Eyes, he still toes the line between possibly drug-induced enlightenment and utter nonsense.

Vague references to a myriad of religions or superstitions as well as some kind of hallucinogenic apocalyptic sense of grandeur can start to get old after the sixth or seventh track.

This would be almost unforgivable if such nonsense as “Sings like the Queen of Sheba / Voice through a Blonde Speaker / One dropping bubble and Leslie / Calling me home like Haile Selassie” wasn’t coupled with one of the best hooks he’s ever written.

What makes the lyrics so frustrating is that Oberst is very close to something great, but he gets too wrapped up in his own hallucinations and fantasies to come back down to earth long enough to explain what he’s talking about. He claimed in interviews that the title track is about the confluence of society and technology, but it seems doubtful that anyone can figure that out from listening to the song. For a man who once practically beat us over the head with imagery in every line, this kind of vague nonsense is puzzling.

“The People’s Key” is probably not what anyone outside of Oberst’s inner circle expected it to be. The album has some dizzying highs despite the lack of lyrical depth. With so many rockers in the bag to choose from, the band’s upcoming tour promises to be one of their most exciting to date. Catch them in Chicago at the Riviera Theatre on March 15.

Contact Chris Collum at [email protected]