In his seventh release under his band, Bright Eyes, Conor Oberst seems to talk about every major religion. The People’s Key feels like it leaves the listener overwhelmed.
From the opening song, “Firewall,” we get a profound ramble from Danny Brewer, a Texan friend of Oberst, about how Hitler comes to life from reptiles in the fourth dimension. Seriously.
At first listen The People’s Key feels jumbled, cluttered and chaotic, nearing a sorry excuse for probably the last Bright Eyes album — it seems to come way out of left field like his 2007 releaseCassadaga did.
Since that time, though, Oberst has altered his state of music by traveling across the country, hopping from the urban world of New York to the indie mecca of Portland, to his mental escape of Tepoztlán, Mexico, to an apartment near a recording studio in Tornillo, Texas.
His side project, The Mystic Valley Band, which he played with in 2007-10, had a far less genuine sound with less impactful lyrics. Similarly, Oberst’s participation in the indie super group, Monsters of Folk, felt strange compared to Bright Eyes. Though both projects produced fantastic music, it just wasn’t who Oberst really was.
The People’s Key was supposed to be a return to what he did back before he was that wayward traveler, a final edition in the series.
Does he do it? I definitely think so. Though Oberst’s stream-of-consciousness lyrics sometimes feel like a thick webbing of contradicting and confusing ideas rivaling books of religion, he’s doing so to try to tie together his thoughts and identify unseen parallels.
This album brings back styles Oberst hasn’t touched in years. “Jejune Stars,” a key track discussing the naivety of youth, feels reminiscent of the post-hardcore emo-punk that he and others used to play back in the late ’90s, like his labelmate Cursive helped pioneer.
A lyric from the song seems to discuss how he’s played with his old Bright Eyes buddies for as long as 16 years now: “We are Jejune stars / So it starts again / At our childhood’s end / I’ll die young at heart.”
“Approximate Sunlight” deals with the actuality of people and how we’re changing. It feels as though he took out tracks from 2002’s Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, took a world religions class and rerecorded it during his 2005 Digital Ash in a Digital Urn sessions. Synthesizers and soundscapes galore, the downbeat track blends doctrine with gloomy melodies and a reverb-heavy slide guitar.
Oberst told the Huffington Post that The People’s Key deals with the end of our current existence and how singularities, which occur when technology alters the future toward unpredictability, are happening all around us.
Oberst follows this with the key theme from Cassadaga – religion and the metaphysical nature of the world. This time, southern Christianity is replaced with Buddhism, Hinduism, Nazism and even Rastafarianism. The song “Haile Selassie,” named after an African leader considered by Rastafarians to be Jesus incarnate, highlights Old Testament references of pilgrimage, miracles and wandering the desert.
Though “Haile Selassie” appears to scoff at the nature of the higher power, it plays into Oberst’s ideas of singularities and invisible hands controlling the fate of the world.
Similarly dissatisfied, Oberst compares religion to science fiction in “Ladder Song.” Trying to call about some resolve at the end of life and perhaps at the end of the project that is Bright Eyes, this synecdoche highlights a key theme of trying to respect the forces of the world. “I wanna fly in your silver ship / Let Jesus hang and Buddha sit / … / You’re not alone in anything / You’re not alone in trying to be.”
The title, he also says, refers to how many amateurs play instruments in the musical key of C, often called “the people’s key.” (Most of the tracks on the album are written in the key of C.) Similarly, it feels like his admission that something redeeming is unlocked when people embrace their spirituality, even though it may feel like a silly piece of science fiction.
Cassadaga only hinted at this theme of accepting religion after journey. The People’s Key uses it as a launching point and takes the listener further and more directly with his idea, a move away from cluttered confusion in last album, which was 2007’s music version of the movie “Inception.”
The People’s Key brings it back to where Bright Eyes was at its peak. The method of allusion and layer found in Lifted and 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors and have a joyful return — ignore the seeming difficulty of the work and just keep listening, because it’s the return of the conflicting identities that are the highlight of Oberst’s works.
Though I want to see what more could come from this resurgence of colorful conflicts, Oberst has done a good job of saying farewell, and potentially closing the body of work that is Bright Eyes.
Bright Eyes will play at the Fox Theater in Oakland on April 12.