Album Review: The People’s Key

Story by Thom Fountain

When I was 16 I bought my first acoustic guitar. Being 16, I was plagued by the woes that come with learners’ permits, awkward crushes and the fact that your parents constantly ask you why you wear so much black. Late into the night I would shut myself into the back room of our basement and shyly play the muted chords of Bright Eyes, much as I imagined front man Conor Oberst would.

It’s easy to imagine the first few Bright Eyes albums being recorded in a dark basement room late into the night. In those early days, Oberst’s guitar either barely lifts itself above a whisper or screams with anger and regret and his voice has the strain of a man well beyond his years.

In Bright Eyes’ newest record, “The People’s Key,” Oberst transforms from that awkward, bitter folkster into a truly hardened and unabashed pop star.

Alright, so maybe ‘pop star’ is going a bit far. He’s not bleaching his hair or getting implants (thank God), but there’s definitely a true pop sensibility behind Key. Songs like “Shell Games” and “Beginner’s Mind” catch your ear and stay in your head for much longer than the pining of the Bright Eyes of old.

And while many facets of this newest album fall in line with the rest of Bright Eyes’ discography — the album starts with an eerie monologue as with all his previous records, for example — there’s a crispness and a cleanliness that hasn’t been seen yet in Oberst’s music. The songs are deeply instrumented and layered under effects and a professional studio quality — definitely not the norm in Bright Eyes’ lo-fi history.

This poppiness doesn’t distract from Oberst’s lyrical brilliance, which stays strong. Tackling themes of love and religion, the Omaha, Neb. native weaves words together like a master.

If there is anything that’s lost in this new direction of Bright Eyes it’s a sense of cohesiveness. There isn’t a truly weak song out of the 10, but the album as a whole doesn’t hold together as well as each single. The first three songs are a perfect example. The opener, “Firewall,” is a grungy ballad with a heavy low-end rhythm. This transitions quite ungracefully into the almost peppy piano chords and synthesizer of “Shell Games,” which comes to an abrupt ending with the sharp wall of sound that is “Jejune Stars.”

That third track is the black sheep of Keys. It’s a fine song, keeping a quick paced and catchy melody, but is separated by thrashy, double-bassed attacks of drums and guitar.
Taking each song as a single, though, this album contains some absolute gems. Although it’s tough to beat the young Conor Oberst, baring his soul into understated chords and strained vocals, Bright Eyes’ newest release blazes its own path with pure pop hooks and melodies.