The People's Key (Saddle Creek, 2011)
by Bright Eyes
originally published at Dusted Magazine
Conor Oberst was never supposed to age. Since the waifish, wobbly purgations of earliest Bright Eyes, he’s been most appealing as the beautiful boy, the sweet little kid squirming and frowning under weights meant for a man’s shoulders. Whether or not he’s interested in growing up — and all signs point to yes, country-folk fixation and political engagement and all — it’s starting to look like he’ll never be more useful to us, aesthetically speaking, than he is when he’s articulating that meek little voice we all have somewhere inside, the one unafraid to be selfish or frightened or petty.
The People’s Key, more or less Oberst’s 10th album as Bright Eyes, finds him aiming for the prophetic over the personal, embracing the luxuries of the studio instead of hunkering down in the bedroom. Musically, that’s a boon; his skills as an arranger have come in line with his knack for evocative melodies, and these songs are outfitted nicely with little touches of slithering urgency and faux-metal gloom, some stirring rootsiness in the vintage Wilco whir of “Haile Selassie” and some wide-eyed paranoia in the crunch of “Triple Spiral,” the strongest callback to Oberst’s underrated Desaparecidos album. Even the pointedly vulnerable piano eulogy “Ladder Song” has a certain stately polish to it.
For all its welcome sophistication in that respect, though, the album still bears the mark of a narrator ill-equipped to speak on the big world outside the aforementioned bedroom. Oberst is no Win Butler (who, for the sake of equity, is no Oberst, either): he’s just not a very good universalist, and his attempts to speak for the rest of us collectively — laid out most explicitly on closer “One For You, One For Me”: “one for the breadlines, one for the billionaires...” — come across as shallow and ham-fisted. (The sermons of enlightened-crackpot ontology spaced throughout the album are, at best, deep and ham-fisted.)
To wit, most of the album’s first-person thoughts gloss as allegorical (“I bought a gray macaw, named him Jules Verne / He’ll probably outlive me, he’s a bright bird / He keeps me company, I teach him new words”), and its global pronouncements are predictable high-school-English fluff (“Used to dream of time machines / Now it’s been said we’re post-everything”). “Shell Games,” not coincidentally the best song on the album, has its “tag it on the tenement walls” refrain, but also some of the candor we miss elsewhere: “My private life is an inside joke / No one will explain it to me.”
It’s not like the evolution of Bright Eyes hasn’t pointed this way for a while now, but here it’s clearer than ever what Oberst stands to lose by resisting the impulse to distill everything through the narrow lens of that old, solipsistic voice: the narrator that wore his beloved’s shoes all day at school to pretend she walked with him is melodramatic and overwrought, but he’s still more interesting than the narrator telling us about a snuff film on a Jumbotron — his imagery is more poignant, more real, more authentically fractured.
As it is, if The People’s Key were the work of a newcomer, we’d be tempted to ask just who he thinks he is. The problem — or the saving grace here, depending on how you look at it — is that we have at least nine albums of precedent to tell us exactly who he thinks he is.back