There’s always trouble around a new Bright Eyes release. They’re an important band to a lot of people, with messianic frontman Conor Oberst’s lyrics guiding many a sensitive heart through those awkward teenage years since he himself was barely out of short pants. At the heart of everything Oberst has done, and the reason that work has affected so many people, is an ever-deepening sense of loss and confusion. Few songwriters in the modern era have so perfectly nailed that feeling, the blurriness and pain that drives a person to search endlessly for some sort of truth in their own lives. Oberst hasn’t found it yet, not in the emo-folk of his teens, not in the East Village chic of his mid-twenties and not in the grandiose, spiritual strains of the last Bright Eyes record, 2007’s Cassadaga, but he’s still searching from one city to the next, one friend to the next, a lover he doesn’t have to love or his favourite neon sign, a four-track in a basement or a white baby grand. The People’s Key is all this experience bundled into one record and that comes with its own set of problems.
Concepts of time and the possibility of transcendence are very important to the feeling of this record which, depending on the moment, can make Oberst come across as wholly spiritual, ablaze in the light of the search for search’s sake, or detached and unable to comprehend all the intricate, interconnected strands of the world that surrounds him. On ‘Shell Games’ he is open and hopeful that the weight of a great love can be borne by two people together but aware all the time of the tricky, slippery nature of that love, so easily fooled by a trick of the eye or sleight of hand. The song begins as a piano-driven elegy, Oberst wishing he could forgive himself for all the times he was “cruel to something helpless and weak”. Suddenly there’s a change, four great classic rock chords ring out and the beat comes in, laden with synths and interlocked melodies. Oberst remains reflective, dressed in the white of that long, arduous Cassadaga tour and obsessed with death, “like a teenager”, but the chorus comes back around and the hope shines through again, everything might just be okay.
The album progresses on this template, propulsive and full, a barrage of sounds and textures rammed to bursting point into three or four minute segments. There are many nods to the electronic atmospheres found on Digital Ash, but it is never embraced to same extent; those sounds are equal to all the others and are mixed in to the greater picture, another shade to the paint. The songs are interrupted by the transcendental monologues of Texan musician Danny Brewer, continuing the Bright Eyes tradition of integrating found sounds and spoken word, and their purpose may be to both inform or under-cut the messages in the songs, it’s hard to know. Either way, Brewer stands the only figure on the album that has found their own absolutes. How serious you take that truth just shows the vitality of the difference that drives Oberst forward.
The slow, enveloping darkness of ‘Approximate Sunlight’ is hugely reminiscent of the blank space of Digital Ash, combining the pedal steel with the whispery synths and echoing drums to hold up the intense drawl of the vocals- “Now you are how you were, when you were real”. ‘Ladder Song’ comes out of nowhere near the end, a sad, out of tune waltz with a friend who committed suicide. It is as affecting a song as Oberst has ever written, a perfect example of his empathetic and brittle nature as a writer. It’s an arresting song, spinning quietly between resentment, pain and love. “You’re not unique in dying” he sings, heartbroken and betrayed, but still there is love that will never go away; “Don’t it just make you want to cry, precious friend of mine?”.
The People’s Key is not a simple album by any means and it will continue to shed tiny secrets over hundreds of listens. It’s not going to please everyone, but no Bright Eyes album ever will, there are too many contradictions, too many doubts to appeal to those seeking a vicarious truth. Oberst knows no more than any of the rest of us, he’s just better at expressing it. In the end, this is a great album, even outside of any pretext, that is filled with memorable tunes and thoughtful, inspired lyrics. There’s a lot to listen to here and it is an important stop on the road to nowhere, another snapshot of a journey that will never end, for us or for Oberst.