Music Reviews
The People's Key

Bright Eyes The People's Key

(Saddle Creek) Rating - 6/10

The People’s Key - Conor Oberst’s eighth and reportedly final album under the Bright Eyes moniker - has a lot to live up to after a rich career, starting with 1998’s A Collection Of Songs Written 1995-1997. Like him or loathe him, Oberst is one of only a handful of living songwriters about whom the word ‘genius’ has been used too many times to dismiss as pure hyperbole. But he’s faced plenty of criticism too, mainly regarding overwrought lyrics that have alienated a lot of listeners.

It’s somewhat telling that the most captivating moments of The People’s Key are the spoken word sections by Denny Brewer, the white-bearded vocalist of Refried Ice Cream (who reside on Oberst’s Team Love Records). Brewer opens proceedings with new age ramblings about the nature of time, Sumerian tablets, Biblical prophecies and reptilian visitors to Earth, delivered over a foreboding synth drone that swells and changes direction with each topic. There’s an almost Morgan Freeman-esque wisdom to his voice, and whether or not you dig his seemingly conspiratorial world view, it makes for a gripping introduction to the album.

That leads into the opening notes of Firewall, a dark and moody slow-burner in which Oberst conjures images of a volatile environment, be it geophysical or political (“Light to dark can shift in an instant”) and religious symbolism (“Then I’m standing in the blinding light / Crooked crosses falling from the sky”). Many of the lyrics are loosely connected and difficult to decipher, but this only adds to the intrigue of a solid opener.

Unfortunately, much of the rest of the album seems like a missed opportunity. The opening lines of Shell Games are disappointingly familiar, vocally following a very similar pattern to If The Brakeman Turns My Way from Cassadaga. The chorus relies on an irritatingly sloganistic hook (“Here it come, that heavy love” - and yes, that’s “come”, not “comes”), and elsewhere the song features gameshow synths and a cheap synthesized choir. Jejune Stars’ upbeat melody comes across more cheesy than uplifting, and the jaunty vocal delivery in Haile Selassie seems forced and unnecessarily dramatic.

It’s not all bad though - far from it. Approximate Sunlight is probably the best representation of what Oberst is trying to do here, with a sparse, understated beat and mantra-like backing vocals. The lyrics give rise to a convincing sense of unease about the times we live in: “Used to dream of time machines / Now it’s been said we’re post-everything”. Ladder Song is the most affecting few minutes here, with a haunting piano line and words about the inevitability of death (the song was written after a close friend committed suicide).

There’s not a lot fundamentally wrong with The People’s Key; it’s just that we know Bright Eyes can do better. Oberst’s fragile, tortured vocals need room to really capture the listener - as his folkier material afforded him - but the the louder nature of this album doesn’t really allow for that. And that means that with the exception of a handful of standout tracks, much of the album simply fades into the background.