Bright Eyes - The People’s Key

Harry Milburn 17/02/2011

Rating: 4.5/5

It's been over 3 years since Bright Eyes last release- the rootsy 'Cassadaga'- and the decision from Conor Oberst to recast himself as a folk rocker that followed. Since then, a solo project and a brief sortie with alt-folk super group Monsters Of Folk has ensued; the fruits of which have been three competent though uncharacteristically traditional records that have largely sat uneasily with both critics and fans.

Thus, when Oberst announced what had long been suspected- that 'The People's Key' was to be Bright Eyes' final release- many were hoping for a retreat into the bedroom brooding cocoon from which he made his name; and a return to the sound heard on earlier, more lo-fi releases, such as 'Lifted' or 'Fevers And Mirrors.'

But whilst in truth 'The Peoples Key' is far from lo-fi; splicing the full band backing and production of 'Cassadaga' with the more experimental electronic accents of 2005's 'Digital Ash In A Digital Urn'- no one should be left disappointed. Conor has, in own words, tired of all that 'Americana shit'- and it shows: perhaps encouraged by Arcade Fire's recent 'Suburbs' success, this is a swan-song of pianos, synths and big choruses; a potpourri of pedal steels, synths and spoken samples that somewhat impossibly works.

As though desperate to produce a record unsuitable for the casual listener; Oberst opens with the hallucinatory ramblings of slow-burning opener 'Firewall'; hiding lyrics such as 'my veins are full of flat cherry cola' amongst bizarre sermonising from Refried Ice Cream's Denny Brewer. Yet this is not the indigestible, impenetrable art rock album that that might suggest. For starters, there's the Springsteen-ish single 'Shell Games'; but the Cursive inspired 'Jegune Stars' and cleverly thought-out 'Triple Spiral' are catchy enough too.

It is, however, with more opaque tracks like 'Approximate Sunlight' that this record really impresses. Paradoxically apocalyptic but uplifting, ethereal but distinct- rarely, if ever, has Oberst's impassioned Nebraskan drawl attenuated into as genuine a singing voice as it does here. Then there's the suitably epic 'A Machine Spiritual (in the People's Key)'- boasting the lines 'Little Hitler sat in his giant's chair/and dreamed of nowhere'; and his return to I-can-make-my-voice-quiver-like-a-flame form 'Beginner's Mind'; which features the similarly elegiac lines 'stay awhile my inner child, I'd like to learn your tricks, know what makes you tick... nurse you when you're sick'.

As always with Conor Oberst though, he's never far from over-egging the veritable pudding; and whilst audacious rhyming such as 'teenager' with 'vinegar' and 'look at me mummy!' references to Sisyphus and Celtic symbolism can be let slide; it's fair to say the reggae inspired 'Haile Selassie' doesn't quite work. An interesting (though probably ill-advised) nod to the Rastafari Messiah; it references 'hitchhiking back to Zion' and being the 'chosen people', before leading into a scream of 'One love!' that, ironic or otherwise, is hard to take seriously.

Yet there's enough here to forgive all that; and where once his voice seemed perpetually stuck in that angsty shake; these tracks show its true breadth- ghostly and distant on 'Approximate Sunlight', fragile on 'Beginner's Mind', controlled on the excellent 'Ladder Song', uncharacteristically dispassionate and detached on 'One For Me, One For You'. Indeed, penultimate track 'Ladder Song'- a contemplative, swinging piano ballad- is just as melodic and tear-jerkingly brilliant as 'Lua' or 'First Day Of My Life'; and could easily rank alongside any of his best. It would have made for a fitting closer- bringing as it does the project full circle; but it's usurped by the more uplifting synth-heavy nod to The Cure, 'One For You, One For Me', ensuring a sense that Bright Eyes never really dimmed.

In fact- whisper it- but with 'The People's Key', they might well have saved their best album until last.

Album. Released 14 February 2011.