I’m going to be honest with the reader. I do not worship Conor Oberst, I am not obsessed with Bright Eyes, and my world does not revolve around the release of the latest Bright Eyes album. Oberst’s vocal strain is far too dramatic for my taste, his lyrics are overtly “in-your-face” (no matter what the issue is that he is ranting about), and the hype surrounding his bands and his releases tends to make me want to ignore him altogether.
All of this aside, I did my best to keep my preconceptions of Oberst out of my review here today.
The People’s Key, the eighth and apparently final Bright Eyes release, begins much like a previous Bright Eyes album. But this time, instead of Oberst himself giving the monologue at the beginning (“At the Bottom of Everything” on I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning), he has sampled the rant of a seemingly deranged man who evidently believes in some kind of intergalactic, Revelations-esque spirit-stirring conspiracy (“Firewall”). This seemingly unwarranted, lengthy, über-dramatic sample easily rubs an unfamiliar listener the wrong way, giving more-than-subtle hints of unsolicited pretentiousness and artistic superiority. Not exactly the way I’d choose to fire up my project’s final album.
Now, I’ll certainly give Oberst and Co. credit for venturing out into the world of musical exploration. The unorthodox sounds of The People’s Key range from starry synths to pulsating percussion, and from bawking guitars to MGMT-esque vocal harmony. Mike Mogis’s production is certainly a asset to the formation of such an oddly “alt-rock” atmosphere. A portion of this exploratory product is certainly intriguing. “All the rest is predictable,” if I may borrow the phrase..
It’s as if Oberst laid out a few handfuls of musical puzzle pieces on his coffee table. He separates them, organizes them, and then tries to force pieces together that don’t exactly fit. For example…
The dance-driven groundwork of single “Shell Games” is adequate enough, but the searing synth is a bit too sharp (texture-wise, not pitch-wise), creating an odd gap in the arrangement of the track. Not to mention the peculiarity of hearing Oberst’s ashy voice atop a crest of bouncy dance beats…
The strangest component of The People’s Key is Oberst’s B-grade melodies. The one moment on the record where brilliance is begging, PLEADING for realization, Oberst catches a case of the butterfingers. The misfire, “Ladder Song,” is a soft, piano-padded ballad-of-sorts, and it is initially remarkable— Forging the dark mystery of a pirouetting piano with a wounded vocal patch and a fittingly dreary set of lyrics… And then arrives the chorus.
Basically, this potential masterpiece slips into Coldplay’s “The Scientist” within about four beats.
And that’s the thing that keeps this album from being even “pretty good.” Oberst’s chord progressions are predictable (see the chorus of “Jejune Stars”), his melodies are lacking (see the redundant refrain of “Halie Selassie”), and his lyrics are either too high or too low, intellectually speaking (see “A Machine Spiritual / In the People’s Key” for “high,” “Triple Spiral” for “low”).
What we have here is a case of “slightly above average.” I mean, slightly. Like I said, “kudos” for the optimistic experimentalism, but there’s just not a whole lot of substance here. When I’m hungry, I need some FOOD. This is bread, butter and water.
71% / C- ♭