From spiritual to celestial; from inner peace to outer space. 2007’s country rock classic ‘Cassadaga’ 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: ‘The People’s Key’ 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 Monsters Of Folk and The Mystic Valley Band, for this eighth [a]Bright Eyes[/a] studio album Oberst crossbreeds the alien synths of ‘Digital Ash In A Digital Urn’ with the primitive folk passion of ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’ to create a fresh strain of [a]Bright Eyes[/a] record.
So, within four tracks of the tribal blues noir of opener ‘Firewall’– complete with military drumrolls, groaning force fields and muted industrial clatter– we’ve encountered shameless power pop synths and Meatloaf motorcycle riffs on ‘Shell Games’, a [a]Maccabees[/a]-gone-ELO stormer called ‘Jejune Stars’, and ‘Approximated Sunlight’ – 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 ‘Haile Selassie’, 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 ‘Dawkinsian cyborg’. “I wanna fly in your silver ship/But Jesus hang and Buddha sit”, he emotes on ‘Ladder Song’, 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 ‘Triple Spiral’, 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. ‘The People’s Key’ 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 ‘I Must Belong Somewhere’ or a ‘Road To Joy’. Closer ‘One For You One For Me’ 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 ‘The People’s Key’ is otherwise synthetic perfection.