Bright Eyes – [Album]

Friday, 25 March 2011

As a longtime fan of Bright Eyes, I approached The People's Key with both remorse and excitement. Prior to its' release, Bright Eyes' leader Conor Oberst had gone on the record as saying this would be the last album under the name and they would be retiring the moniker. While this was obviously disappointing, it's also respectable that the band was ending at a high point, despite there still being demand for more output. It was consequently exciting to ponder the direction Oberst and collaborators Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott would take on this last album and whether Oberst would provide some closure to the many themes that defined his output.   This did not happen. To be honest, I have no idea what The People's Key is about. It may be about the meaning of life, maybe it's an existential awakening, I really don't have a clue. What is clear is that Oberst and company had a very clear idea of what the album would "sound" like and took their time to craft a very polished offering. This is especially refreshing following the looser material that Oberst had been releasing on his solo projects and with The Monsters of Folk.  While I prefer the simpler themes of "Classic Cars" or "Landlocked Blues," The People's Key remains a welcome addition to the Bright Eyes catalogue, even if they are ending the moniker with a question mark, thematically.

I've long thought that a Bright Eyes record starts with Oberst sending Mogis and Walcott a demo of the songs with him on acoustic guitar, (likely over-singing) and they reply with… "Okay Conor, what do you think about taking these songs in x direction?"  2000's Fevers and Mirrors, 2002's Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, 2005's I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and 2007's Cassadaga all had very different directions, but the songs could have been easily swapped amongst the records. At the core of his songwriting, Oberst has a talent for appearing vulnerable and assured at the same time in his expression of emotion; whether it be excitement, disappointment, loss or love. This, coupled with his poet-like ability to effortlessly spit the most heartbreaking lyrics, has always been the key to his appeal. Perhaps playing under-appreciated roles, Mogis and Walcott have then always been able to focus his prolific output into a single direction album by album. The People's Key is no exception.

As usual, the album starts with some white noise, this time along with some biblical ramblings about the arrival of aliens and the importance of love. I had never given these ramblings much consideration before, but opener "Firewall" makes the ramblings worth enduring. The drums recall those on Lifted and the track features a slippery guitar groove. The opening moments of "Jejune Stars" make the song an appropriate choice for the next Desaparecidos record as it features extremely distorted and frenzied guitars. In contrast, what struck me about single "Shell Games" was the lack of guitar. The restructuring is a perfect example of Mogis and Walcott's contribution to the record. Mogis and Walcott also seem to have taken particular care with the drums, as they're featured prominently on most of the tracks, but especially on "Approximate Sunlight," "Haile Selassie" and "One For You, One For Me." Despite their production efforts, which are characteristically exceptional, the prettiest moment on The People's Key comes on "Ladder Song" with Oberst alone on a piano. It's a flawless example of the vulnerable confidence that makes him so endearing and may have made a better album closer than "One For You, One For Me." In a way it reminds me of Fever and Mirrors' "Sunrise, Sunset" in that it has the manic delivery that characterized his earlier work where one wasn't sure if it was helping or hurting him to sing these songs. With "Ladder Song", it seems we have come full circle, which would have made it a fitting closing moment for a band I am sad to see end.



Bright Eyes – "Halle Selassie" – The People's Key
Bright Eyes – "Shell Games" – The People's Key


The People's Key is out now. Buy it here on Amazon .

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