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Monday, February 7, 2011

Bright Eyes: The People's Key (Release Date: 2-15-2011)

        No matter what he does, Connor Oberst will be grievously disappointing some, and gloriously satisfying others. Like fellow multi-faceted, multi-band performers Jack White or Spencer Krug, Oberst is always up to something new. This ensures that his career, like those other aforementioned names, will never be the subject of boredom, but it also limits the amount of time he can offer any one project, or sound.  Though Oberst can claim to success with a handful of different outfits (Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, Desaparecidos, and Monsters of Folk, just to name a few), you would be hard pressed to find anyone who is not most excited for his workings under the Bright Eyes moniker. So, despite claims that the project was all but sealed off forever, here arrives The People's Key, four long years, two major bands and one heck of a lot of touring since the last Bright Eyes disc.

        The People's Key continues the trend of each next Bright Eyes album being at least as produced as the last, and in most cases more. Like both Cassadaga (2007), and I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning (2005) before it, The People's Key opens up with a lengthy track featuring a audio sample of someone giving a speech that is inspired, feverish, and insane (Firewall). What it leads into, however, is something that you won't find on either of those two records: A gritty slow-burner without a hint of twang in sight. There are chorus flourishes, sure, but on the whole, it stands as a darker, more methodic incarnation of the Bright Eyes sound than we've heard in quite a while. Its a strong and resonant tone, but one that Oberst isn't interested in handing the whole album over to, as the bouncy, synth-driven follow-up track Shell Games can readily attest. You read it right: Bright Eyes is rocking the synths too, but you'd be surprised by how natural it sounds in his/their aesthetic.

        These first two tracks are no outliers; The Oberst of The People's Key isn't the southern gentleman that we've come to know him as of late. Jejune Stars shares Shell Game's uptempo insistence, hammering drums and guitar propelling it from smiling chorus, to urgent verses. Similarly, Approximate Sunlight boasts of the same down-tempo churn as Firewall, slide-guitars slithering around across the song's sparse soundscape, increasing in volume as the tune goes on. These two styles, the deliberate and minimal slow burner (Firewall, Approximate Sunshine, Ladder Song), and the fleet-of-foot, sonically robust pop numbers (Shell Games, Jejune Stars, Haile Salassie, Triple Spiral), take up the vast majority of the ten-track album, somehow making TPK both varied and somewhat predictable. The songs that don't exactly fit into either category seem to set their sights right in between the two, returning with a plethora of results including both my favorite (One For You, One For Me) and least favorite (Beginner's Mind) track on the album.

        The People's Key is the mixture of different sounds Oberst has visited with the project over the years: the boisterous brokenness of early Bright Eyes crossbreeding with the thinker, more produced musical texture of his later pieces. It's an interesting concoction, one that I imagine will have both advocates and detractors, just like everything the man does. I for one can't help but pine for the simpler, more country leaning sound-world of the last two Bright Eyes albums, but I know plenty of people who don't think much of this guy when his voice isn't crackling with teenage earnestness on every other note. Regardless of what camp you're in, TPK feels too simple-minded to really blow anyone away. Oberst's lyrics don't jump right off the tracks and smack you in the face with brilliance like they often have in the past, but that could be a product of the album being fresh to me. There's no need to tear holes in the somewhat safe, twang-free approach of TPK, but it is difficult, for me at least, to not feel a bit let down. Undeserving of being either extensively derided or worshiped, The People's Key is a middle-of-the-road album made by a sometimes great artist, simple as that.

Grade: C

1 comment:

  1. Great article, I completely agree. I'm just happy I'm one of Oberst's fans that is always satisfied. And if you can't enjoy one song by Bright Eyes, go back to the Jonas Brothers, deuche.