There’s something to be said about the consistency of Bright Eyes records over the past decade, at least in terms of approach and process — specifically Bright Eyes records and nothing that Conor Oberst has released under any other handle. Whether you loathe Oberst, hide behind some strange wall of shame regarding a past obsession with him, or continue to love him unconditionally, there’s no denying that the Bright Eyes albums are built around solid visions, both content and style-wise.
They all begin with a prolonged introduction, and one deliberately conjoined with the first track, so that it’s difficult to skip over. There’s always an overarching theme, and it’s usually expressed through that introduction: the occult, social insomnia, digitized fear, fevers, mirrors, etc. It is because of this general template that we accept a Bright Eyes record as, well, a Bright Eyes record. Whether it may seem slightly arbitrary to us why Oberst uses his given name or the cute moniker he invented over 10 years ago, his records have proven that there is a certain method to the madness. This is a prolific artist organizing his output for us.
Under these terms, The People’s Key is a Bright Eyes record through and through. It opens to the delusional sci-fi ramblings of an apparent madman (who Oberst has identified as a friend, named Denny, whom he talked with frequently during the writing process). For about two minutes, over scrappy echoes, swashy synth, and cinematic atmospherics, Denny’s midwestern accent familiarizes us with reptilian creatures who landed on earth to enslave the human race and breed with them in “what the Bible calls the garden of Eden.”
Somehow these paranoid conspiracy conversations stuck with Oberst, who brings some of the same concepts into the record. At first, the reason seems to be just to create a bizarre, dark tone to kick the record off; as if Oberst nabbed the guy off a New York City street corner, where he was yelling to disaffected bystanders about the apocalypse. The spoken word sample definitely does create that sort of mood, but it also lays the groundwork for the record’s dominant themes: twisted humanity, time travel, sci-fi religiosity, spirits, the limitless nature of the mind’s imagination, and insanity itself. Oberst’s dreams, fears, and philosophical qualms stain this record with a new kind of ghostly darkness. Trees of smoke, Zion-bound hitchhikers, black machines, fever dreams, they’re all here. Even the poppier songs here don’t stand a chance of glistening.
Following the reptilian rant, opener “Firewall” rides in on rolling, pysch-Americana fingerpicked electric guitar. Like an acid-soaked spaghetti western soundtrack, the instrumentation lulls out reluctantly along with Oberst’s words. It’s got a sort of T-Bone Burnett-meets-Pink Floyd vibe. Up until now, nailing down a unique aesthetic hasn’t really been Bright Eyes’ thing. It was more about the lyrics, the song’s message, or an attempt to join the ranks of well-established aesthetic traditions: say electro-pop, country, alt-folk, etc. Here, however, he kind of carves out a new style of his own: reverb-drenched strums met with the faintest of pedal steel lines, mechanized pounding drums, full strings, and washed out synthesizer.
On “Firewall”, the drums continually slam down against the track, like floorboards being ripped up point-blank to a mic. Martial snares, which seem to jump around in and out of perfect time, bring the thing to a blossoming climax. It sounds industrial even, but with enough spontaneity and movement to keep that human touch keenly intact. Oberst keeps his lyrics cryptic, his melodies penetrating, and the song’s production mutating. It’s one of the strongest Bright Eyes tracks in recent memory, because it pushes all envelopes at once, Oberst moving forward with lyricism and dealing with sonic space in a novel manner. And this eclectic new sound stays consistent throughout the entire record.
Oberst isn’t living in the same world he occupied on Cassadaga or I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. This one is the nightmarish amusement park of his imagination. As aliens and theme park holograms rub shoulders with educated macaws, he sings: “Walking through the land of tomorrow/Martian trinkets, plastic Apollos/In the sunshine try to act normal/My veins are full of flat cherry-cola/Slept on a bench by the rollercoaster.” That’s kind of what this album sounds like: a naively construed half-dream dreamt at a nighttime amusement park, where the rides all have demonic names, and pyrotechnics light up the hazy night sky.
And with that vibe fully fleshed out, the record bounces and rocks along in its psychedelic density. With the Vox tube amps at full blast, it’s a little harder than usual to make out every word. On a few tracks, the music seems to take precedence, the words a secondary reading. Thumping bass drums, echoed harmonies, disco synth, distorted guitars, and layered static flood these tracks with exhilarating dynamics.
Take “Jejune Stars”, for instance, a bombastic guitar-rock pop song, coated in a heavy layer of mathy guitar licks and the occasional flurry of spattered chord-drum bursts. There’s so much structural and textural freedom going on here that it seems to announce a new saga for Oberst, one that doesn’t necessarily want the words to mean everything. His warbled delivery clamors for a place amid the thicket, and it’s like a whole new world.
And though Oberst places more emphasis on instrumentation, a look at the lyrics sheet–or a closer listen–reveals that he is still the poetic soul he has always been. These songs will continue to give with every spin, because for the first time in a long time, there’s too much to consume all at once. Though they’ve been pretty shabby on his past few solo outings, the lyrics here are back to their powerful, insightful old selves. You may just have to work harder to get the most out of them. This is a relatively new concept for Bright Eyes fans.
The People’s Key is a pleasant surprise. For one, it doesn’t retread in the slightest. It’s ambitious in its scope and stylistic decisions. While some of the tracks don’t exactly have the staying power of the record’s haunting opener, this is a solid collection of songs from an artist who has been making these things since his childhood. It’s impressive enough that he’s managed to retain some of the best aspects of his youth, while maturing and evolving elsewhere. Repeated listens will undoubtedly pull the curtain back further on The People’s Key, getting us closer to the core of what the record is about. Oberst hasn’t created a masterpiece, but he’s started a new fire, one that will probably keep us warm for at least a little while.
Feature image by Cap Blackard.