Bright Eyes – The People’s Key

  • Bobby Gorman posted
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Bright Eyes

The People’s Key - Saddle Creek Records

Bright Eyes’ visionary Conor Oberst has proved most industrious over the past few years.  Two solo albums and a third significant contribution to powerhouse collaboration Monsters Of Folk has kept the young songsmith busy even when taking a break from the project that originally put him on the map.  But now, after over four years, he’s back with a new dose of raw, emotional indie, and he hasn’t missed a beat.

I actually hadn’t realized how much I had missed Bright Eyes until I sat down and gave due listen to, The People’s KeysBright Eyes’ first new album since 2007’s Cassadaga.  Looking back, I really enjoyed the folky stylistic shift in Cassadaga – the same one defining most of his collaborative and solo projects – but hearing Keys has since made me realize just how much I’ve missed the old experimental Oberst of the days of Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and Motion Sickness.

While this isn’t to say that The People’s Key is a revelation for Oberst, there’s a fundamental level of clarity and cognitive arrangement mixing curiosity, emotion, and a growing wisdom learned across the young troubadour’s now decade spanning career.  I’ve listened to the album in the dead of night, during my daily commute, and while assembling drawer after drawer of IKEA furniture while furnishing my new home.  Every track delivers Bright Eyes’ unmatched fusion of poetic passion of substance rich inquiry of the lived experience.

Framing The People’s Key is the oddly captivating speech of Denny Brewer, an outspoken believer in far out concepts of the cosmos.  From spiels about man originating from an alien reptilian race, to inter-dimensional beings, and theories of eight parallel universes, the man sounds like a keynote speaker at a close encounters convention.  But under all “Firewall’s” madness is a message of unifying love – a concept that, by the album’s end, ultimately redeems this star gazing misfit.

Ditching the over-used Americana-flavour of past work has resulted in a rich alternative tapestry.  Oberst’s voice stands both on its own and alongside the flooding echoic waves – as if each vibration was trapped by the gravity of a swirling bottomless abyss.  But for the all of heavy mood, Oberst really sounds like he’s having the most fun in years.  “Shell Games” and “JejuneStars” twist in a feathery turbine of spinning synth, celebrating the fragile sanity of the mind: “I’m still angry with no reason to be, at the architect who imagines for the every man, blessed Sisyphus slipping steadily into madness. Now that’s the only place to be free.”  Under such a front he pushes the album’s architecture to the place of misery that he lives for.  The best example comes with the slow paced “Approximated Sunlight,” from what I can gather, it’s something of a look inside the socially isolating, confused delusions of a young girl who has bought into some sort of radical theory of the universe, who after a final outbreak audible in the distance of the final bridge breaks down upon realizing that sharing with her “friends” could only lead to bouts of ridicule and laughter.

But what exactly is “the people’s key?”  Unlike artists who often abandon connections between title and content, Oberst seeds the album with a garden of hints – the best clue coming in “The Machine Spiritual (The People’s Key).”  From what I can gather, the people’s key is akin to an omnipresent essence encompassing humanity’s hopes and dreams on the personal level.  A reoccurring presence, the inclusion of Hitler, prisoners, and history’s unyielding march are described as making up a metaphoric melody “ringing, filling everything… through the galaxy.”  It’s the sanity of insanity, the coherence of incoherence – possibly a statement as to the miraculous fact that our global community houses almost seven billion diverse individuals, yet can still be referred to as such.  Bright Eyes has explored some curious themes in the past, but never before with such broad aspirations.

The People’s Key is a thinker’s album.  Those willing to let Oberst’s thoughts stew well past initially inviting them into their neurons will find a new revelation with each successive listen.  I’ve read a few reviews dismissing The People’s Key, focusing on its lack of unity to its seemingly fractured themes.  Those thoughts are likely the result of rushing through or listening to the project on a song-by-song basis.  From my perspective, The People’s Key is a concept album without such a designation – and an opportunity for confusion.  But confusion breeds clarity, testing the mind’s limits, and engaging curiosity.  So those willing to put fire up their neurons will likely find great pleasure in decoding the meaning of life as told by Bright Eyes – even if simply for curiosity’s sake.