Bright Eyes, The People's Key
By wes jakacki
February 15, 2011
Few artists have been as transparent and forthright with their thoughts on life, religion and faith as Conor Oberst, the lyrical mastermind behind Bright Eyes. Much like David Bazan of Pedro the Lion, the Nebraska native has penned some extremely thought-provoking, though often critical, thoughts on these subjects since his teen years, much of which was shaped by a troubled past. My parents, they have their religion, but sleep in separate houses, says Oberst on "Road to Joy," which is one of just a number of songs pointing to his Christian upbringing, which seems to have disenfranchised him from faith. Regardless of his critical view, faith is something Oberst appears to hunger for more than anything else, though there is much that holds him back. “I have no faith, but it’s all I want/ to be loved, and believe in my soul, cries out Oberst on “Waste Of Paint” off his 2002 masterpiece Lifted. Even in his work with indie folk supergroup Monsters Of Folk, he contemplated on “Dear God” of his yearning to believe: Dear God, I wish that I could touch you/ How strange, sometimes I feel I almost do/ And then I'm back behind the glass again/ Oh God, what keeps you out it keeps me in. After a couple solo albums that strayed a bit from his raw, forthright style and dipped into Americana, Conor Oberst releases his first Bright Eyes record in four years with The People’s Key. The result is a welcome return to form and, though flawed, it’s his sharpest album since his 2005 double-album release of I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.
The People’s Key is filled with the ominous ramblings of Denny Brewer, a member of the band Refried Ice Cream, whom Oberst met on the road. Brewer’s sermonettes appear to be mostly satire on televangelists, who sounds like a Southern Baptist evangelist as he talks mostly nonsense in his lectures on Genesis, enlightenment, lizards and even pomegranates. Besides setting the mood, the sermonettes serve as a detriment to the album and a distraction from the songs on The People’s Key, which comprise some of the best and most creative work Oberst has done in years.
Following Brewer’s sermonette, opener “Firewall” affirms the removal from the safer Americana sound that defined Oberst’s last few albums, with its grinding, cerebral sound and its ever-progressing build. “Jejune Stars” blasts the door open with a thrilling thrash metal riff, which contrasts remarkably with its light, bouncy synth and guitar that resides in the rest of the song. The '80s piano rock of “Shell Games” is perhaps the catchiest, most radio-ready tune Bright Eyes has ever produced. Despite The People’s Key being one of his most evolved albums, it is also his most accessible and straightforward rock album with its driving guitars and strong memorable choruses, with thanks primarily due to the remarkable play of his longtime band members and multi-instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott.
Oberst slows the album to half-speed with “Approximate Sunlight,” a hazy and lingering dive into dub which is among the best The People’s Key has to offer. Oberst picks things back up with the ultra-driving "Haile Selassie," which has Oberst referencing reggae and Rastafarianism, a religion Oberst takes ideas from throughout the album.
Lyrically, Oberst references themes from several religions (Buddhism, Rastafarianism, Christianity) but still talks primarily on belief and faith in general. On waltzing ballad on death and the afterlife, “Ladder Song,” Oberst sings of wanting to believe, but again he concludes religion is nothing more than science fiction: Fall asleep reading science fiction/ I want to fly in your silver ship/ Let Jesus hang and Buddha sit. On “Triple Spiral,” Oberst points to his emptiness and disappointment: That’s the problem/ An empty sky/ I fill it up with everything/ That’s missing from my life. Too often—though especially since 2007’s Cassadaga—Oberst’s lyrics and music get bogged down in mysterious, quasi-spiritual lyrics. A prime example is the strumming “A Machine Spiritual,” which is as likable as can be but gets stooped in the same cryptic mysticism that grows tiresome by the end of the album.
Oberst seems to find some peace on “One For You, One For Me,” the album closer that points to understanding and loving one another, even if Oberst’s view may be held in relativism: One for the righteous, one for the ruling class/ One for the tyrant, one for the slaughtered lamb/ One for the struggle, one for the lasting peace.
Because of the abundant amount of mysticism and Oberst’s tortured soul, The People’s Key isn’t one that will have you returning constantly for repeated listens, but the songs themselves are dynamic enough to make the album more than worthwhile. Though imperfect, The People’s Key shows Conor Oberst progressing musically, something always worth applauding.