Album Review: Bright Eyes' swan song 'The People's Key'
Does Conor Oberst's madman metaphors kill or get killed?
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An utter prophet at time, and then, at others, a punk-ass kid. It’s difficult, of course, to call a 30-year-old man and esteemed musician a kid, but then again that’s one of Conor Oberst's very projected struggles on “The People’s Key.”
“Stay a while my inner-child / I’d like to learn your trick / To know what makes you tick,” he susses on “Beginner’s Mind.”
On “Shell Games”: “Death-obsessed, like a teenager / I sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar,” he sings. “My private life is an inside joke / and no one will explain it to me.”
But it’d be easy to get caught up in untangling the Omaha-native’s knots for him, or rather, decoding what he prefers to stay coded. That’s why there’s interstitials throughout of Denny Brewer, a crazy-talkin’ Texan that Oberst met on the road. Brewer raves about love and alien origins, a breath of string theory and creation.
Perhaps Oberst sees himself in Brewer, amid the “psycho-babble.” Maybe he sees his future in this guy. It’s hard to tell if we’re supposed to be making fun of him, in the slim edits of his cosmos theories, as it pokes its weird head in about four times like skits in a rap record.
For this critic, at least, it’s a distraction, making chapters out of Oberst's own serious parsing of language. Because there’s an entire hodge-podge of music to examine, and that’s where many of the problems of “The People’s Key” lies.
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This is one of Oberst’s most listenable records to date, for Bright Eyes and his other rock outfits. But its easy, recognizable structures have noise upon ideas upon slick production piled upon Oberst’s zingers, trying to mainline the group’s punky, off-the-cuff core of earlier days into an outfit of three men who are just way too good for that anymore.
There’s the psych-out of “Jejune Star” where it bows with a post-rock shred (according to the next track “Approximate Sunlight,” “It's been said we're post-everything”) but then bops into something or other about Oberst’s fear of rain, the symbolic refrain of carrying an umbrella under one’s arm. It cashes with a totally unnecessary breakdown version of the chorus and, with wind fully removed from sails by Brewer’s next diatribe, the band lapses into the aforementioned sick sample-stamped groover, which sounds like it was played in a gigantic coffee can.
Oberst tries a big batch of one-liners on exhausting “Haile Selassie.” “I seen the strangest things, man,” he says like his head's swaying, a ‘60s stoner, keyboard flanging behind him. But it’s a chorus line that’s not nearly as catchy out loud as it was in his head. “One for You, One for Me” has some great melodic ideas, but its electronic delivery would have been better left in the “Digital Urn.”
After Brewer explains that “creation is rolling,” the band chugs his way into a “Triple Spiral,” which just makes me think that if Conor Oberst wants to write a song that sounds Cheap Trick, he should just do that and not dilute that pop-rock magnificence with a bunch of distortion and feedback for the sake of consistency.
He kills it (good) on one of the most honest tracks on the set, “Ladder Song,” a piano ballad; that generosity of feeling and unclean vocal delivery shows up on opener “Firewall,” which boasts a slow-burn of electrics and gnarly drums that lurch around like a curse.
Oberst has said that “The People’s Key” is Bright Eyes’ last studio effort, and it’s weird to see him move from the mystic of “Cassedega” (and from stages with his own Mystic Band) to a fever-pitched paranoid, more of an addled Hunter S. Thompson than a wizened philosopher and poet we all know he longs to be. Since this swan song doesn’t appear to musically resolve, I guess we’ll just have to wait for Oberst’s projects in the future to provide some final footnotes.