Conor Oberst has been a huge musical presence in my life for the last 7 years now. Whether it was with his main outfit Bright Eyes, or his solo project with the Mystic Valley Band or his supergroup Monsters of Folk, I have always had his emotive, jangly voice lingering in my mind. Seven years doesn't sound like a big deal until I consider that nothing else-- No book or film or show -- has stayed so consistently part of my tastes. It's strange, and a little scary, to think that one prolific artist has become such an impression in my mind.
The People's Key is, possibly, the last Bright Eyes album. If it is, it's an end of an era, although I'm sure that Oberst will still be churning out songs in one band or another. It may not have the same aesthetic or goal, but it will come from a similar place. I looked forward to this album with the high hopes that it would be a culmination of everything Bright Eyes that swept old and new fans along for the ride.
I don't know if it does that, or even if it should. What's sure is that there isn't really an air of finality to this album, unless you put it there yourself. I like it and will listen to it until smoke comes out of my iPod, but that's already a given. Mostly, it's noted for moving away from the folksy/country/americana roots style that they had been playing up (to tremendous success) since I'm Wide Awake It's Morning. You'll find much less honky tonk organs and slide guitar crooning in the background. Instead, we're given a sound that's a little more new age yet also a little bit thrashing. Hard guitar and attempts at synth characterize the album's standouts.
If Cassadaga was the natural evolution of I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, then The People's Key comes from an alternate universe where Digital Ash in a Digital Urn was the hit album of the duo that got everyone's attention. It evolves the basic electronic sounds of Digital Ash, mixes it in with a lot of rock and roll, and wraps them around the Bright Eyes base of maximalist confessions.
"Familiar" is a really good word to describe this album. Maybe it's just me as an unhealthy avid fan, but the songs settled into my brain pretty quickly. They stopped feeling new after just over a week, and I have a hard time figuring out why. Oberst deserves credit for his very obvious attempt at breaking his tropes and routines: he's experimenting with new, harder edged rock sounds, and dares to try and pull off new odd melodies. Listen to "Haile Selassie" as he sings, "You've got a soul / use it" and think of how strange it must be to build a song around such a misshapen vocal.
But for all its innovation, I kept thinking of these songs as having roots in old favorites. The intro "Firewall," sounds like "The Big Picture" mixed with "A New Arrangement." "Beginner's Mind" feels like "Light Pollution." "Approximate Sunlight"? Shades of "Coat Check Dream Song" to me. Even the cover art, a shiny rendering of flame patterns, reminds me of Letting Off The Happiness, which I consider to be their first "real" album. It makes a nice bookend.
Here's the thing, though: On the face of it, they really don't. The songs are actually pretty distinct and unique when you listen to them without any of these built-in associations that I've created. If I knew more about music theory, maybe I'd be able to pinpoint certain beats or chord progressions that are similar in the songs. Yet, more than anything, these songs pair up because they make me feel the same way. "Firewall" begins with the traditional non-music intro and out of it rises a slow, deliberate and dark picking. "Beginner's Mind" climaxes into a rich, life-ending moment. "Approximate Sunlight" plods methodically under a humid sonic atmosphere. There's a consistency of emotion, in this story that I am telling in my head.
The whole album is couched in what can be described as a rambling by Danny Brewer wherein he explains, very earnestly, his philosophies that range from universal to fringe. It starts with the most difficult to swallow: amongst a suspenseful ambient build-up in the first track, Brewer describes the reptilian aliens that first mated with humans in ancient times to create beast-like hybrids. He describes the way the first people named things, and, finishes on the value of universal love for all things and mercy. For an album couched in spiritual references and spiritual themes, it's not out of place.
To their credit, it's not played for laughs. The people over at Bright Eyes treat it with a certain respect and gratitude that it doesn't come off as a crazy rant, but more like a rare spirit. They lend it credibility with the way they use it as a context for their songs. As Brewer comes back time after time in between songs, it starts to feel like all of The People's Key takes place within the context of one guy explaining how the world works.
As fun and interesting album concepts can be, lyrics and songwriting are the reason I have stayed with this band for so long.
It's just so bizarre
if it's true what we're made of
why do I hide from the rain?
Jejune Stars is one of the catchiest, most singable tunes on the record, and it's got a lot of great lines. "Sure I had my doubts / but I know it now / we are jejune stars" makes me wonder if it's a reference to "Something Vague" and the dream of turning into a glowing star, like a reference to dreams that die, or naive old sentiments. But my favorite song is probably "Triple Spiral," which appears to be a bitter love song towards Christianity. It's probably the best Oberst has ever dealt with the theme of spiritual crisis and skepticism - it's not too hamfisted and doesn't rely on irony or venom, the way "The President Talks To God" did.
Now that the dream is over,
I want it to be known:
I never saw you coming
from my little human prism
How sad it is to know I'm in control
That's the problem: an empty sky
I fill it up with everything that's missing from my life
The emotional crux of the album is easily "Ladder Song," the close-up, fuzzy piano ballad. There's a weariness to it, but it's not defeated, more introspective. Until you are told that it's about grief of a suicide, it's hard to interpret. These events give the line, "I'm tired of traitors / always changing sides / they were friends of mine" possible new angles. It's always hard to say that you know what a song means, but it's a guilty pleasure to indulge in certain readings of abstract lyrics. The song hits a haunting highlight in verse one: "You're not alone in anything. You're not unique in dying." By the end of the song, it does a beautiful pivot with:
I know when it's finally done
this whole life's a hallucination
you're not alone in anything.
you're not alone in trying
There are certainly ways the band has changed in its music making. They are polished to an impeccable shine, with stellar production that makes the new aesthetic sound right at home, rather than failed imitations or boring homages. They own the synth effects and deep echo. They break free from the Saddle Creek band camp rut. At the same time, it's also the least folksy stuff they've ever done, with more leaning on the big climaxing chorus, like storytelling through templates.
It doesn't feel like it was written as the Final Bright Eyes album because it doesn't feel like the ultimate Bright Eyes. For all its goodness, it's not as high on the personal expression, focusing more on The Big Theme which isn't necessarily the strongest part of their game. He's chosen subjects and targets that are harder to penetrate for listeners without some kind of small scale anchor. "Triple Spiral" works as a song about disappointment because it touches a universal personal anguish with what we looked up to, loved, or believed. "One For You, One For Me" doesn't because it's an attempt to convey spiritual peace through sheer force of will.
In this song though, there is a general despair about the lack of unity, or at least the loss of neighborliness: "You and me, you and me / that is an awful lie / It's I and I / It's I and I" which sounds pretty disheartening until you understand that "I and I" is a term of unity in Rastafarianism - that you and me is divisive, the separation of terms for people, and that I and I is a more loving, merciful, inclusive way of speaking of other people. To that end, it doesn't end on much of a downer. Danny Brewer takes us out to ambient noise and explains total enlightenment and peace explaining in a single word: "Mercy."
Time will tell if the Bright Eyes brand will return for another round. I don't want to say that I wish it wasn't, because we've gotten a ton of mileage out of the project, and for that I am grateful for all that it has influenced in me. I think it helped me understand that the art I like best is intimate and moving. But what I imagine a "final" Bright Eyes album to be is likely impossible to create. The standard is always unrealistic, and people are always wanting more. I have always tried to be respectful of all artists and the things they want to make, regardless of what their fans want of them.
So maybe this is as good as it will get. If they make more albums, it's likely they'll turn out like this one anyway. In the end, I'll take it in, incorporate it into my life experience, and return to it for years to come, the way we engage in routine or nostalgia or familiar comforts.
In the old days of interacting with other Bright Eyes fans online, I was most disgusted/horrified with comments from people who suggested that, right around I'm Wide Awake/Digital Ash, that Conor was not the same and, perhaps, too happy. That maybe he should fall deeply into drug abuse, or some such awful comment. I know we get kicks out of a suffering artist, but to celebrate that suffering is an immoral and absurd idea. If we're grateful for all that self-torture and sadness, then we should be glad when it finally ends.
Conor Oberst has always, seemingly, had difficulty dealing with his notoriety - walking away from the devils of fame on "Landlocked Blues" or, on this album, "I've taken some comfort / in knowing the wave has crested / knowing I don't have to be an exception." So if walking away from the project is a relief, then I say huzzah. We should all be so lucky to be free of what ails us, and I hope it means new horizons of musical perspective.