Album Review: Bright Eyes - The People's Key (Polydor)
Oberst returns with a sleek, electro-tinged classic
From spiritual to celestial; from inner peace to outer space. 2007’s country rock classic [b]‘Cassadaga’[/b] was an album about finding sense and order in a senseless, orderless universe, inspired by Conor Oberst’s visit to a spiritualist commune in the Florida town of the same name. But now the philosophical coin is flipped: [b]‘The People’s Key’[/b] is on a mission to decipher how quantum mechanical codes, prisms and triple spirals can add up to the complexity and confusion of humankind.
Certainly it boldly goes where no wobble-voiced, therapy-scarred Nebraskan psych-poet has gone before. Having exhausted his traditional music purism on recent side-projects such as [b]Monsters Of Folk[/b] and [b]The Mystic Valley Band[/b], for this eighth [a]Bright Eyes[/a] studio album Oberst crossbreeds the alien synths of [b]‘Digital Ash In A Digital Urn’[/b] with the primitive folk passion of [b]‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’[/b] to create a fresh strain of [a]Bright Eyes[/a] record.
So, within four tracks of the tribal blues noir of opener [b]‘Firewall’[/b]– complete with military drumrolls, groaning force fields and muted industrial clatter– we’ve encountered shameless power pop synths and Meatloaf motorcycle riffs on [b]‘Shell Games’[/b], a [a]Maccabees[/a]-gone-ELO stormer called [b]‘Jejune Stars’[/b], and [b]‘Approximated Sunlight’[/b] – a dusky Parisian Portishead slink of a song, accompanied by fluttering flutes and a choir of sultry Gallic seductresses wreathed in Gauloises smoke.
If Oberst is here eschewing the organic for the electronic – the rollocking [b]‘Haile Selassie’[/b], for example, would’ve made for a brilliant folk rock yowler but is instead transformed into something Wire might have beaten out of their most untamed Yamahas – he struggles to flick his internal switches to [b]‘Dawkinsian cyborg’[/b]. “I wanna fly in your silver ship/But Jesus hang and Buddha sit”, he emotes on [b]‘Ladder Song’[/b], the plaintive piano classic he was always destined to tinkle. Even on a glorious space pop song as in thrall to the purity of the helix as [b]‘Triple Spiral’[/b], he admits, “An empty sky/I fill it up with everything that’s missing from my life”.
So Catholic guilt, tick; rich and evocative imagery, tick; sonic adventurousness, tick. [b]‘The People’s Key’[/b] bears all the hallmarks of
a [a]Bright Eyes[/a] classic, Oberst’s masterpiece even. But, for the prostrate disciple holding up their hearts for his expert splicing, one thing is lacking – the educated poetic mania of an [b]‘I Must Belong Somewhere’[/b] or a [b]‘Road To Joy’[/b]. Closer [b]‘One For You One For Me’[/b] has similar trademarks – a poet’s cadence, a pan-social sweep from tyrant to righteous man, the odd Hitler suicide reference – but grooves along on a languid New Order tip rather than bursting off the plastic to howl in your face like a lunatic attempting to smash your teeth in with an Edgar Allan Poe compendium.
Perhaps Oberst finds it tough to bring his brilliant bile to bear upon a synth the way he attacks an acoustic; a shame, as [b]‘The People’s Key’[/b] is otherwise synthetic perfection.