Bright Eyes like to keep their albums as homogenous as possible; the themes and sounds of their music can vary quite broadly from album to album, but within each individual album they like to take a certain style and run with it. This was most clearly defined when they simultaneously released Digital Ash In A Digital Urn and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning in 2005. The line of division between the twin albums was perfectly clear: neither contained a song that could have easily been on the other. Even after a hiatus wherein leader Conor Oberst went and released a few albums with other projects, which were unfocused and varied in style, they have returned to musical homogeneity for new album The People’s Key. This time around Oberst’s lyrics are largely informed by science-fiction and musically the band has crafted a new sound to fit around them. This is certainly an interesting direction for the band in theory and often it works, but they also struggle to overcome the sterility that comes with the territory.
Conor Oberst is having strange dreams, possibly as a direct result of talking to people like Denny Brewer who contributes the spaced out, bizarre spoken-word “narrative” that runs through the album. At least half a dozen times on The People’s Key Oberst references dreams he’s had and while he is certainly in the highest league of lyricists when it comes to imagery, the actual meanings of the things he’s describing are regularly uninteresting or indecipherable. Aside from science-fiction the other main theme in these lyrics is Rastafarianism and Conor repeatedly uses the phrase “I and I” to symbolise unity between himself and others, but on The People’s Key Oberst has never seemed more distant. Where once he wrote simple lyrics that we all could relate to, and at his best wrote heartbreaking odes on the human condition, his words are now filled with obscure science-fiction references (“we are Jejune Stars”), intangible and vague messages (“we grow, form some kind of code of flesh and bone”) and random images (“walking through the land of tomorrow, martian trinkets, plastic apollos”). It doesn’t help that his vocals on this album are delivered fairly unemotionally, and sometimes warped in some way to give his voice an inhuman tone. Oberst has undoubtedly improved as a singer over the course of his career, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that it has improved his music. On The People’s Key the passion in his voice seems to have been entirely removed; the characteristic quiver in his voice is absent, not once does he scream or whine here and even when he sings lines like “I’m still angry with no reason to be,” he does so with so little enthusiasm that it seems as though he’s practising learning lines from a script.
Fortunately, although the trio’s spearhead may be somewhat blunted, the other two members of the band, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, are on hand to bring a rich and vibrant sound to the album. Musically, the songs are a kaleidoscope of different colours and textures. This album does not suffer from an overstuffing of middle-of-the-road country songs like its predecessor Cassadaga did, in fact the country sound is almost entirely done away with. Instead we have chugging Cars-esque rock, Cure-like guitar lines and peppy keyboard melodies. The vast majority of songs have choruses, and this is where Conor’s improved singing is capitalised upon; songs like “Shell Games,” “Haile Salassie,” and “Triple Spiral” are amongst the poppiest and catchiest the band have ever written. The downside of this is that, like Oberst and his vocals, the band never lets loose. Each note is immaculately produced and the sound of the music as a whole is pristine and occasionally soulless, like the time machines and other futuristic machinery that Oberst sings about. You won’t find any “Road To Joy” fits of noise or “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves” ramshackle rock here. This is possibly an unfair criticism however, since the band evidently set out to make an overtly pop record and the clean sounds found here are most conducive to this aim. And, in the end, when the tunes are this addictive it’s easy to forget the sound you’d have preferred them to have had.
The conclusion, then, is that The People’s Key is like all previous Bright Eyes albums in that it will infect you, but unlike the infection acquired from the best of Bright Eyes’ albums, this one is only short-term. The People’s Key just doesn’t have the emotional pull that others do. This album was always going to be burdened by the weight of expectation after Oberst announced that it would be Bright Eyes’ final. Although it may not be an out and out success it is encouraging to see that Oberst didn’t let this extra pressure influence him and he made the album that he wanted to bow out on. And for some, this may turn out to be exactly what they wanted to hear, after all, as Oberst says on this record, “every head’s a different world.”