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Listening to a Bright Eyes album is similar to reading a really good book. It must be heard from beginning to end and re-listened to a number of times to understand each songs’ meaning. Conor Oberst, the man behind the pen, is no stranger to creating in-depth albums. His career has been dotted with some of the best records in indie music. Touted as a boy-genius and my generation’s answer to Bob Dylan, Oberst is barely into his 30’s and has been making music for almost two decades. His seventh Bright Eyes album, and first in four years, The People’s Key has been released on Saddle Creek today, on Oberst’s 31st birthday, February 15th.
The People’s Key takes on a very different sound than we’re use to hearing from Bright Eyes. Opening in the same storytelling fashion, ‘Firewall’ begins with a voice describing a theory of alien life coming to earth to breed with humans and the consequences of our moral code which leads into the dark and base-driven track itself. Immediately brightening the mood, ‘Shell Games’, a current single from the album, starts softly with Oberst’s vocals and a backing piano, quickening its pace with every beat before an attack of guitar and synthesizer come in, livening the already upbeat tone. The high-paced momentum continues forward on ‘Jejune Stars’. Beginning with a quick and heavy guitar, the song then quiets, flecked with bass and keyboards, only to return to the intense and heavy guitar every so often. The contrast of this heavy and fast guitar placed throughout the more quieted melodies creates an interesting dynamic and tone which is found on most of the tracks throughout the entirety of the album. The dark and bass-driven songs continue with ‘Approximate Sunlight’, a slow and haunting track, and with ‘Haile Selassie’, another single from the album, which is more beat-driven and fast-paced than the others.
‘A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key)’ is the first song found on the album that uses the familiar acoustic sound that Bright Eyes is generally known for but with a soundscape of rhythm from bass, shakers, and drums over-arched with piano and vocal melodies so that the acoustic tone is light and traced only at certain moments. ‘Triple Spiral’ and ‘Beginner’s Mind’ continue the faster-paced melodies and harmonies. ‘Ladder Song’, a haunting and melancholy piano ballad, has the most familiar sound and tone of previous Bright Eyes’ albums but with a very distinctive maturity. The album ends with ‘One For You, One For Me’, a mid-paced but upbeat track with a mix of synthesizer, keys, guitar and quick but not overpowering rhythm. The song eventually diminishes to the same voice as the beginning (and also found dotting tracks throughout the record) discussing once again, the moral code of humanity and need to love.
The People’s Key is one of the most interesting Bright Eyes’ albums to date, and definitely worth the four-year wait since Cassadega‘s release in 2007. Taking a step away from his usual influence and discourse, Oberst has branched out beautifully into new sounds and lyrics that are no longer a poetic introspection of himself and his way of understanding the world. The story Oberst has penned is more about humanity as a whole and our roles within it and the objects we surround ourselves by.