Conor Oberst recently told Billboard that he was “over the Americana, rootsy, whatever that sound is”. Fair enough. He’s been doing it for years – most notably on his stunningly good 2005 album I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. But now that we’ve come to the end of the line for Oberst’s Bright Eyes project, The People’s Key indicates that maybe he didn’t need to lean so much on the tried-and-true forms of American roots music anyway. The “new Dylan” or not – as was proclaimed when he released Lifted nearly a decade ago – Oberst is a hell of a songwriter, capable of inventive structures, intriguing lyrics and sticky melodies.
But The People’s Key – produced by longtime Bright Eyes collaborator Mike Mogis and recorded in Oberst’s Omaha studio – is, like much of Oberst’s output, more complex and intricate than it seems on first glance. Bright Eyes has got a history of wielding heavy, long-form concepts deftly (for instance, the psychic, kitschy focus of 2007’s Cassadaga), and for marrying form and function (as on 2005’s electronic Digital Ash In A Digital Urn), and The People’s Key is no exception.
Like Cassadaga before it, this seventh Bright Eyes album is populated with fringe views and bookended by a potentially lunatic rant, this time strange, sci-fi origin stories and prophecies from Texas musician Denny Brewer of a people who “walked like a man but they had reptilian features,” their enslavement of the residents of the Garden of Eden and their eventual hybridisation with humans, resulting in phase-shifting and inter-dimensional travel. Ultimately, Brewer warns about the evil third dimension in the “super-universe”. “And for it to solidify or to crystallise, it has to have both elements, right?” Brewer asks. “And you have to keep it in balance, or it will, it will, it will, one of them will destroy the other.”
The People’s Key is very much concerned with the destruction of the universe, and with cataclysms. “No one knows where the ladder goes,” Oberst sings on the keyboard-driven, melancholy Ladder Song. “You’re gonna lose what you love the most.” The emotion demonstrated here – in a song he wrote after hearing of a friend’s suicide – is closer to Bright Eyes’ early days than anything else here, but it’s obvious that Oberst has grown up, choosing to channel his emotion reluctantly, calmly and quietly rather than through off-key yelling.
“Now you are how you were when you were real,” Oberst sings over a cut-time slow jam on Approximate Sunlight. “What if this leads to ruin?” he asks on the driving Haile Selassie. “You got a soul, use it.” “The bodies float and form some kind of code,” he sings on A Machine Spiritual (In The People’s Key), also mentioning a “backwards, black-faced minstrel show” and Eva Braun. Oberst seems determined to ponder life’s imponderables, rather than to return to the sorts of angst-ridden rants that got him so much attention with the emo crowd in his teenage years.
The album closes with the surprisingly singable pop tune One For You, One For Me, on which Oberst proposes a series of toasts (“One for the F�hrer, one for his child bride. One for the wedding, one for the suicide.”), and a closing argument from Brewer that we should lean toward compassion and “what do you call it? Mercy.”
Oberst has certainly grown up on record, starting with his very early – and uncomfortably confessional – work, and moving through to the existentially searching album we see before us today. He certainly hasn’t reached the end of the journey, but he’s decided – perhaps rightly – that he’s taken Bright Eyes as far as it can go. With The People’s Key, he continues to solidify his place as one of the great songwriters of his generation. Here’s hoping he doesn’t hang it up anytime soon.