“Doe-eyed yet affable”: Conor
Oberst & Co. return with The People’s Key,
out next week on Saddle Creek, but despite its hotly-anticipated status, our
reviewer can’t quite summon up the superlatives to justify that anticipation.
The People’s Key is definitely maybe
the last Bright Eyes release ever, so I guess it’s time to savour the remaining
salt from Conor Oberst’s cheeks. The band’s past output demands that this be
the crescendo of all crescendos: some kind of frenetic, schizophrenic,
glory-dripping crown of an album, replete with barrelling snares, funereal
horns, and vocal cracks deeper than the San Andreas Fault.
An absolute superlative.
for whatever reason, it isn’t.
it’s that bigness which spoiled Bright Eyes for Bright Eyes. That the more
personal (and usually painful) the project became, the more it seemed to
balloon and drift away from its creators, becoming this representative
experience of the modern depressive poet. Many have entertained the thought
that the more Oberst has sobered up, the less interesting his output has
become; 2007’s Cassadaga was no
stunner, either, and the gritless Mystic Valley Band songs could only ever have
survived under that disparate moniker. It’s not even that the disillusioned
masses subsist solely on a diet of pain. It’s surely the clarity of all emotions that is missed, now – the
way the sprawling ‘Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (to Love or to be Loved)’ on Lifted (a.k.a. Lifted, Or: The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground) expressed
being battered, bruised and betrayed and feeling the last vestige of hope all
the more keenly for it.
all fairness, there is only so much a fan can expect from a non-charting
musician in terms of supplying our demand. We can expect them to show up to
gigs and play competently (a point on which Oberst has actually improved), to
charge fair prices, and to not smack us in the face with the mic-stand.
Pandering to our generic preference, not so much. So. We accept the move
towards straight “rocking” represented on The
People’s Key, and love it or leave it.
not easy to love or leave The People’s Key entirely. While it’s
undeniably professional, there’s some heart missing. It opens on a seven-minute
growler called ‘Firewall’, on which Some Guy waffles on about the descendents
of Satan and the essential balance of good and evil in the universe with no
particular coherence. Eventually a dusky guitar riff cuts in, and stays low
throughout, immediately killing off suggestions of timpani and backbeats, like
a song that doesn’t want to be caught. Perhaps it’s a foil for ‘Shell Games’:
the first song to be released, and very much an attention-seeker with its poppy
piano, synths and solos you’d sooner expect from The Killers. Though there’s
some sensibilities here borrowed from Digital
Ash in a Digital Urn, nothing on that album sounded like it would translate
so well to a stadium as this does. Its chorus is immediately memorable, almost
childish: “here it come, that heavy love / we’re never gonna move it alone”.
There’s even an “everyone together now” moment. All things considered, a bit
‘Jejune Stars’ has some pleasant indie-rock
fallbacks, speeding through the different voices on electric guitar: the
jangle, layered and mottled like thorns, the thunder, all unfortunately ironed
out in Mike Mogis’ production. ‘Approximate Sunlight’ treads some old ground
with its slow, dusty beat and doleful Morricone guitar, but breaks away into
brief, swirling tin whistles somewhere in the middle: some sour flavour of
jealousy seeps through in “all I do / is
follow you / just follow you / just follow you around”, and it feels just like
old times for a moment. Soon after, ‘A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s
Key)’, though it has a similarly comfortable, dirty-Kokomo sway to it, kinda
wrecks the vibe with the most nasal vocals Oberst has produced since he was 13.
‘Triple Spiral’ is rock and roll all right, but like its neighbours, it has a
very fast and charmless way of introducing itself, almost without self-respect;
none of these songs really enshrine their best melodies, where there are any.
goodness for penultimate track, ‘Ladder Song’, which lets its wet, cantering
piano shine out unhindered, and recalls how well Bright Eyes do moody waltzes.
The stripped-down format also lets us actually hear the song’s simple,
existential lyrics: “no one knows where the ladder goes / you’re gonna lose
what you love the most / you’re not alone in anything / you’re not unique in
For Me, One For You’ rounds off the album, plodding along as benevolently as
the now-oldie ‘Easy/Lucky/Free’ but with far more basic lyrics, once again.
“One for the righteous, one for the ruling class,” he ekes out slowly over two
wine-glassy chords, “one for the tyrant, one for the slaughtered lamb / one for
the struggle, one for the lasting peace / one for you, and one for me.” It’s a
little doe-eyed, but it’s affable. It actually seems to be smiling. Maybe that‘s what’s so disturbing – the fact
that Bright Eyes is basically leaving many of us behind, with all our angst and
vitriol. They’re making music now that expresses, if not happiness, a basic
level of contentment necessary to live.
love,” Some Guy continues to blather as the two chords slow-dance towards the
album’s end. “Uh. Compassion, love, whaddyacallit… What’s that?” Another voice
mutters mercy. “Mercy.” And that’s
the last word, mercy. Has Oberst made peace with his past? Has he forgiven and
received forgiveness? And in reaching that state, did he somewhat sacrifice the
far more universal appeal he’d found in misery?
mean, I’m happy for the guy. The album is alright; touching, in parts. But it’s
2011 now; 20 people were shot in Arizona, Haiti is still in utter chaos, there’s a
revolution happening in Egypt,
and my cat died just a few weeks ago. I guess I wasn’t prepared for Bright Eyes
to find “mercy” just yet.