Ladies and gentlemen, Conor Oberst is back.
The former wunderkind of indie pop/rock/electronic abandoned his roots in 2007, when Bright Eyes’ released Cassadaga, which contained a more folk-rock sound, with lap steel guitar and violin dominating the mostly acoustic instrumentation. This was followed by Oberst forming his solo band, Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band, who released two albums of folk-inspired rock, as well as the supergroup, Monsters of Folk, which appropriately released a folk album in 2009.
While this music was far from bad, it was quite a surprise for fans of early Bright Eyes. We were used to hearing Oberst shout and thrash away on his guitar in a rather impassioned manner. The more reserved approach was quite shocking. When Oberst announced at the end of 2010 that the next Bright Eyes record, titled The People’s Key, would contain a more contemporary sound and that they were “over” their Americana experiment, fans rejoiced. The album is a return to form for the band and hopefully not their last.
The album begins with “Firewall,” which starts with a rather strange spoken word piece about reptilian humanoids. It might make listeners wary but their concerns are ceased when the track properly begins. The guitar work is very alt-rock styled, giving the track an almost Manchester Orchestra-style sound. For fans of Bright Eyes’ early work, this track will surely become a favorite. Oberst’s imagery-heavy lyrics shine here, as does the production of band mate Mike Mogis. “And then I’m standing in that blinding light. Crooked crosses falling from the sky,” Oberst sings calmly. Imagery like this is prevalent throughout the album, with religion and Rastafarianism being major themes.
Following the seven minute opener is “Shell Games,” which is more reserved than the opener. Beginning with Oberst singing over piano, the song has a rather tender approach, similar to work from 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, albeit more polished. When the synths, courtesy of Nate Walcott, and drums enter, the song becomes nearly radio friendly. This is definitely one of the happiest sounding songs Oberst has written in years, with instrumentation that screams optimism. The song would be an easy choice for the first single.
“Jejune Stars” begins with propulsive drums and palm-muted guitar work, giving the song a nearly pop-punk sound, reminiscent of Oberst’s work prior to Bright Eyes. The chorus is incredibly catchy, as Oberst delivers a great vocal take, missing the shakiness that used to drag down his voice. The guitar work of Mogis and Oberst is also stepped up here, playing off each other better than they have in years. If these three songs are any indication, this could easily be the band’s most popular and commercial record, and also possibly their best.
“Approximate Sunlight” is a slow-burner with a fairly eerie sound. “I’m out of breath, I better sit. Been living hard, living. All I do is follow, just follow this hollow you around,” Oberst laments, before the song distorts with another sound clip. Mogis deserves praise for his production on this track, something which he has been criminally underappreciated for in the past.
On the sixth track, Oberst returns to acoustic instrumentation, though it isn’t as rustic as his work in the last few years. “A Mother Spiritual (In The People’s Key)” features Oberst slinging together metaphors in a Dylanesque style. The chorus is similar to that of Bob Marley’s historical track “Redemption Song.” It is one of the strongest songs on the album, one which features very few weak moments. “We’re starting over,” Oberst sings at the end. It couldn’t be more true, as this album truly is a new starting point for the band, as well as a bar for future work.
“Triple Spiral” and “Beginner’s Mind” are two straightforward rock tracks, which continue to push the notion that this is an extremely polished record. None of the distortion from recording equipment and vocal missteps of past work is present here. While the record is in the same genre as previous work, it is stylistically different. It’s a shame this album was released with little to no promotion, as it could easily be extremely popular with the right amount of support.
The album’s final ten minutes contains “Ladder Song” and “One for You, One for Me.” “Ladder Song,” a ballad featuring Oberst and his piano. It is similar in structure to “Coyote Song,” released last year as a boycott track by The Sound Strike, a coalition of artists protesting against Arizona after it passed SB 1070, a bill that gives the police the right to arrest people who are possible illegal immigrants. “Ladder Song” may be the slowest song on the record, but it fits in perfectly with the rest of the tracks.
“One for You, One for Me” has strange, electronic instrumentation, along with traditional drums and lead guitar, making it comparable to tracks from 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn.
Bright Eyes manages to calm the unrest after their long absence with one of the strongest albums in recent memory. If the band doesn’t retire like Oberst has alluded to, then they could easily return to the immense fame they once had. If they continue with the same style, they could surpass it.