Few had high expectations for The People’s Key. Ending a hiatus that began in 2007 for Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes project, this eighth record under the name comes as the latest installment in a career that’s been going south for at least half a decade. From the largely dead-end electronica of 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn through the country-schmaltz snooze of his two recent solo albums, it seemed that time and age had blandly mellowed the once fiery soul of emo-flecked folk. Oberst’s promises in recent interviews also rang dubious, from the announcement of this record’s “science fiction” theme to the idea of making reggae-inspired, non-reggae music (and, of course, the disconcerting notion of those two concepts’ synthesis). Worst of all, the first two singles — “Shell Games” and “Haile Selassie” — underwhelmed as standalone tracks. Just a month ago, even a Cassadagan psychic would’ve bet on this album sucking.
But now the record’s here, and with it comes the not-irrational temptation to suspect Oberst has been pulling his punches. Depending on how one looks at it, The People’s Key might even be understood as the culmination of a long and troublesome trajectory Bright Eyes began as a teenager’s bedroom project in the mid-90s.
That’s the way Oberst seems to see it himself. In the opening stanza of “Shell Games” — an anthemic charge à la Arcade Fire that works much better in context — the weathered songwriter sifts through the LP-jacket imagery of his entire career, suggesting he intended The People’s Key to be the reflective act of collation and refinement that it is. And though he turns the knife inward for the second verse — “Death obsessed, like a teenager/ Sold my tortured youth, pissed in vinegar/ I’m still angry with no reason to be” — this record reflects a poise and maturity that his previous triumphs lacked. Bright Eyes enjoyed an incredible run in the early aughts, but Oberst could never keep his neuroses and bad habits in check long enough to last both sides of the wax. Made when he was just 21, the fascinating Lifted came off like a 17 year old’s dream of what the perfect album would be (acne and all); I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning featured some of Oberst’s best songs, but began to dip too deeply into the country trough; and pretty much all of his albums have suffered from some combination of pointedly tedious introductions, uncalled-for spoken word, and thematic threads left unspooled.
Thankfully, The People’s Key casts a positive light on these past missteps — as though they were valuable practice for what Oberst has finally managed here. While conceptual dialogue and Lynchian synth-ambience are familiar tropes for Bright Eyes, the words of Oberst’s El Paso friend “Denny” that bookend and break apart The People’s Key are different. For once, the gesture feels neither empty nor scripted: Denny’s wide-eyed, unmedicated ramblings (on everything from mankind’s responsibility for the future to ancient aliens’ invasion of the Garden of Eden) actually cohere in the music they inspired Oberst to make. This dynamic of spoken word and lyrical echo resonates richly throughout the album, offering plenty of cognitive pleasure for the attentive listener — like hearing Denny’s cryptic remarks on Hitler in “Firewall” bear sweet poetic fruit in a later verse of “A Machine Spiritual.” Moreover, the fact that Oberst naturally pieces together such clear melodic and lyrical sense from Denny’s fragmentary stream of consciousness raises the first real interesting questions Oberst has posed since getting all ponderous post-Wide Awake: Might there be profound meaning hidden in the ostensible ravings of the ostensibly insane? What are the differences between sacred scripture and secular myth? How does inspiration work, particularly across mediums?
Which all might as well be pointless piffle, were it not for the music being as good as it is. The People’s Key is Oberst’s most fluently arranged, lyrically graceful, and consistently quality batch of songs to date. Like fellow 90s vets Spoon’s Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga and Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News, it’s a warmly accessible distillation of Bright Eyes’ past sounds that generously rewards the open-minded fan while making a prime introduction for the unfamiliar. Die-hards will likely bemoan the general absence of anything to challenge Lifted or Fevers and Mirrors’ cathartic highs, though “Approximate Sunlight” is at once one of Oberst’s all-time best sad bastard laments and religious zealot lampoons.
Longtime Bright Eyes member Mike Mogis’ production merits attention, especially as it helps deliver on the goal of making reggae-influenced music that’s not reggae. Oberst giddily sprinkles references to Bob Marley hits and Rastafarian culture throughout the record (an obvious example being the buoyant summer pop of “Haile Selassie” or the “I and I” refrain of the gorgeous conclusion to “One For You, One For Me”), but it’s Mogis’ reverberant beats and ghostly dub echoes that evoke Jamaica’s spirit most effectively. It’s a subtle touch, but one that helps complete the circular cohesion that makes The People’s Key truly work as Oberst’s “sci-fi album.” After all, dub reggae progenitor Lee “Scratch” Perry’s music (and that of his many disciples) reflected a keen interest in outerspace, spirituality, and things beyond this earth.
As with the album’s heartening conclusion, then, it all comes back to Denny. Oberst’s musings throughout The People’s Key suggest the same skeptical distance he’s always kept from organized religion, but as he helps this strange fellow conclude this long monologue with the one word he can’t find, it becomes clear that Oberst genuinely wishes to embrace the people of this world, to present them with an offering. Music is his way of doing that, and with The People’s Key, it seems that Omaha’s brightest son has remembered — and at last realized — the intricate and fully formed monument to life he boldly set out to make as a kid.