Having been a long time fan of Bright Eyes, I was really interested to see how his return to the name would go, since I haven’t been overwhelmed, necessarily, by his Conor Oberst output. For the most part, it’s a return to form, though most people will find that The People’s Key more closely resembles Digital Ash as far as production goes, rather than going the route of lush orchestration that was present on Lifted.
Of course, the album opens with over two minutes of spoken word, which, if you’ve been a fan, is something Conor has almost always used to begin his records, and in doing so, he seems to be stating that while it might have been some time, he’s still treating Bright Eyes as he always has. Once “Firewall” gets going, you’ll find that his country-twang has dissolved returning him to the more soft-spoken troubadour of old. And who doesn’t love a bit of Magic Mogis orchestration to accompany his work.
When I first heard “Shell Games,” the piano backbone reminded me of early work on Fevers and Mirrors, except this is definitely a more mature Oberst, one who now should celebrate great control over his voice. As the song moves along, there’s definitely a more futuristic (read electronic) sound pushing the track. My favorite line is “I’m still angry with no reason to be,” showing long-time fans that he’s still out there searching for the perfect path, much like the search we’ve all gone upon ourselves. Then to move from a semi-ballad to “Jejune Stars,” well, its a perfect move, while both songs share some sonic similarities, but differences allow for change in perceived mood. Personally, the stuttering of the guitar lines, not to mention the rise and fall chorus, make this track a stand-out in my mind.
“A Machine Spiritual” opens up with some typical strumming, which slowly retreats into the background of the song as Conor’s voice takes control. For some reason, his approach on this song, as well as throughout The People’s Key, gives him a sense of rejuvenation, as if he’s gone back to his twenties. He seems gentler somehow, almost more naive, but perhaps this all revolves around his subject matter. Using bits like “impart to me/your wisdom/and eventually I’ll float into the ether” remind us that one of the great thing about Bright Eyes, past and present, is that he often walks the same path that his listeners seem to take; sometimes we’re all looking at a world we’re not happy with, struggling to find our own meaning, in a world we’re not sure we can necessarily change. It’s this sort of a theme that goes along with “Ladder Song,” that constant pursuit for what it all means, and how we can change it all. Ultimately, it seems that Oberst realizes we all must live on our own terms, and the song is incredible, if not one of his best. The fragility in his voice during the chorus, his openness with listeners, and the simplicity of the structure of the song serves as a reminder of just what an incredible writer he is…love him or hate him.
It’s been said that this would be the last Bright Eyes release under the name, and if so, then I’ll admit I’m probably a bit saddened by that thought. The People’s Key is a reminder of just how amazing Oberst is as a songwriter, and that with his pal Mogis behind production duties, how heartfelt his music can truly be. If he does manage to leave it all behind, let’s just hope that his new work can somehow manage to encapsulate all the things that make listening to his work great such as spirituality, great lyrics, and a certain nakedness, one that allows us to see ourselves in our favorite musicians. Here’s to that.
Download: Bright Eyes – Shell Games [MP3]