(Written for the Falmouth Navigator).
Frontman Conor Oberst returns after nearly a decade with the long-awaited, eighth album, The People’s Key, from Bright Eyes, which is rumoured to be his last. Following his previous album Cassadaga, which was about finding sense and order, Oberst has taken a new approach with his brilliant songwriting.
As NME describe it, it is a switch “from inner peace to outer space”. Oberst hasn’t written about his own personal experiences with this new album, losing the emotional intensity. But the album itself describes the transition of a new journey, a journey through dreams into space. He has definitely gone out with a bang, even if a high-powered and mystic one at that.
Bookended by the ramblings of Texan musician Denny Brewer, The People’s Key opens with ‘Firewall‘. As the synthesiser slowly drones in, Brewer talks of space and time in a hypnotic manner, introducing the comforting vocals of Oberst. Firewall is a very slow-paced song, but as the military drumroll start to kick in, the rhythm and vocals collide together to welcome the catchy new sound that The People’s Key presents us with; a mix of folky vocals with the sound of industrial clatter and power pop synths.
‘Shell Games‘ follows, opening with more chirpy vocals and the tapping of high piano keys; a sound we are all used to with Bright Eyes. This is an undoubtedly more optimistic song as Oberst shouts, “Everyone on the count of three, all together now!”, but the underlying emotion through the lyrics is completely different; an aspect of Oberst that his fans adore.
‘Jejuna Stars‘ shows off the new synthy approach at its best, making you unconsciously tap your feet to the spacey pop chorus. ‘Triple Spiral‘ does exactly the same as Oberst admits, “An empty sky, I fill it up with everything that’s missing from my life”. The album clearly portrays the lyrics of the song as it could easily put you into a trance as you uncontrollably become involved in the tracks.
After a slight interruption from more of Brewer’s droning rambles, ‘Approximate Sunlight‘ and ‘A Machine Spiritual‘ are very classic Bright Eyes songs with echoing, deep vocals and calming instrumentals. ‘Haile Selassie‘ is quite similar in style, but is one made for the live shows for the crowd to sing along to with its more upbeat vocals and folky acoustics.
‘Beginner’s Mind‘ focuses more on this folkiness, offering us something we recognise. This is followed by a classic piano ballad, ‘Ladder Song‘, an inevitable interlude from Oberst where he emotes, “I know when this world’s done, this world is an hallucination” again focusing on this illusionary aspect.
The album concludes with ‘One For You, One For Me‘ pulling together everything that album has had to offer. An extremely catchy composition from a mix of synths, guitar and drums, overlapped with the echoes of Oberst’s unwinding vocals.
The People’s Key is much more than expected. A formation of Oberst at his best, with poetic lyrics about dreams and hallucinations and becalming compositions. His folky vocals are here balanced against a more punky sound; I found myself dancing along constantly. But although the acoustic guitar has been swapped with a synthesiser, it’s very easy to recognise the Bright Eyes masterpiece behind it all through Oberst’s weighty songwriting.
What a way to say goodbye.