BRIGHT EYES | The People’s Key

First Impressions: Bright Eyes “The People’s Key”
David D. Robbins Jr. | Their Bated Breath

I must admit, I’ve never been a big fan of Bright Eyes/Conor Oberst. A large part is the style of the music, but maybe some of it had to do with the media-anointed title, “The next Bob Dylan”. Granted, he never asked to be called that. But I think I felt some resentment at the notion of Oberst (or anyone for that matter) being compared to the song-writing master that wrote “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” or “Shelter from the Storm”. That being said, I’m still open to Bright Eyes. I’ve got nothing against him or his music. I figure the more good music out in the world, the better. (Update: In fact, I really liked this record.) Here’s a track-by-track look at Bright Eyes’ newest album, “The People’s Key”, and my immediate thoughts as I listened to it. Tracks are ranked 1-10, 10 being sublime. Bear with me here. This will be written as a first impression, literally as I hear it. So, the descriptions of the songs will be without segue and the lyrics, of course, are unofficial. You can hear the entire record at NPR’s First Listen:

1. Firewall: Song cryptically begins with the Sumerian-inspired ramblings of Denny Brewer, guitarist for the band Refried Icecream, talking about aliens, man’s origin, spatial dimensions, universe expansion and the ancient battle of good and evil. That intro takes up nearly two and a half minutes of a seven minute track. It’s a crazy intro that prepares you for the crazy reach of the song’s lyricism itself. It’s sprawling, dark and pretty with a rolling guitar line and Conor Oberst’s apocalyptic, Biblically-tinged scrawls. I put a lot of weight on first and lasts on records. The first line of this album is: “I do my best to sleep through the caterwaul.” There’s a good place to begin about a creeping song that mentions wrist-slitting, a metaphorical rain of crooked crosses, and a hologram that looks like a human melting down to her ankles. The song is bizarre, but beautiful. (9)

2. Shell Games: This song reminds me of old Bruce Springsteen. Oberst allows his voice to tremble with a fragility. “Hear it come, that heavy love / Someone gotta share in the load.” The chorus is melodic as hell. I love it, with the bouncing piano behind it. It’s a pop music delight that transforms into a glitz of 80s Tom Petty synthesizer circa “You Got Lucky”. This is ripe for radio play, and what I imagine will be a lot of sing-along moments during a live show. There are some memorable lines, “Distorted sounds on a oscilloscope / Distorted fact I could never cope / My private life is an inside joke / No one can explain it to me.” (10)

Bright Eyes “Shell Games” (Saddle Creek Records link)

3. Jejune Stars: The first thing that jumped out at me is the song title. ‘Jejune’ and ‘stars’ usually aren’t words paired together because sky works as a metaphor for dreams, what people want to attain, and natural beauty. But here, the stars are unimpressive. There are a lot of diametrically opposed images in this track. This song has a rockin’ pace and interludes of paired heavy-staccato guitar and drums — seemingly circling around the romantic line, “I’ll die young at heart.” Not my favorite song. The track officially ends with more spoken recording from Brewer talking about the connection of sounds and the naming of objects. (5)

4. Approximate Sunlight: I’m starting to feel like Oberst is hitting Sufjan Stevens’ realm. I mean that in a positive way. I like this song a lot. It is intricately layered, with odd sounds, a brass horn, drums with heavy pauses between beats, and an eerie blues/soul bend. The lyrics here are meandering and stunning: “As a child imagining, neckties and coastlines / I’ve seen the show man, what a sight / Drenched us in approximated sunlight / The crowd was small, and mostly blind / But kind, / You’re too kind.” In one of  the song’s verses, Oberst playfully criss-crosses between the present and future tense, carrying over this album’s strange concept of universal continuity of space and time beginning with Brewer’s ‘high-times’ opening. In the background, you can also hear the recorded voice of a girl saying, cryptically, “He has a tower that watches everything that happens.” (9.5)

5. Haile Selassie: This is another pretty good pop-rock track. Okay, so the song is named after the former Emperor of Ethiopia, who also became a god to the Rastafari. But it isn’t really a song about the leader, it’s just an image to bounce ideas off of in what turns out to be a melodious and fun song. In a way, the track is about being content with knowing one day you won’t be around — and that children are your legacy. The song swirls around a catchy chorus, “I’ve seen, I’ve seen, I’ve seen stranger things man / I’ve seen, I’ve seen, that tree of smoke.” (8)

6. A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key): The is a low-key but rollicking piano ballad.  There are delicious harmonies in this song, especially during the lyrical moments when Oberst sings of “dreams” and “starting over”. This is the centerpiece of the record, obviously, because the song is also the album title. But it’s the thematic center too. It’s a song about long-held wisdom, interconnection (“another from another”), history, spirituality and the ether. (Oh, and this is the second song that mentions Hitler.) It’s a gorgeous track. The end of the song ends as it began, with a blipped-out banjo, bass in the red, a slow disintegration into distortion. Brewer ends the song with a note about hearing the cosmos. (8)

7. Triple Spiral: I can’t begin to know what exactly Oberst has in mind, literally speaking, with each song. “Triple Spinal” comes off like a rock love song to a concept, as opposed to an actual thing. Yes, there are hints about the pre-Celtic sign representing air, earth and sea. And it makes sense within the blending conceptualization within the record. But that’s a bit of a bland, detective-like way of listening to a song that’s really quite lovely. This is also the second track to mention ‘the sky’ as a negative thing. (“That’s the problem / An empty sky / I fill it up with everything that’s missing in my life.”) A nice piece of lyricism: “In with the new, out with the old / A dusty box of letters / A rusty suit of armor / A casket made of 14-karat gold.” (7)

8. Beginner’s Mind: “Sunshine so cliche / Just like love and pain.” There is a sort of same-ness to the pacing on this record. I started to feel it here. But it doesn’t seem to detract from my enjoyment of this song or the record as a whole. It’s also during this song that it becomes clear just how solid a songwriter Oberst is. I’m not easily impressed. It may not be Dylan, but his words are always interesting, and make me want to go back a re-listen to verses. (7)

9. Ladder Song: This is the real change of pace. Voice and piano only. It’s sad and lovely. It’s a song about predictability and cliche (continuing some of the lyrical mood of “Beginner’s Mind”), even in dying. “If I gotta go first / I do it on my terms / I’m tired of traitors / Always changin’ sides / They were friends of mine.” The middle piano section transitioning into the second set of verses is deep, earthy and pretty. (8)

10. One For You, One For Me: I’m always curious to see if band will end an album with a quiet closer like “Ladder Song”. Oberst and crew do close with a  downtempo number, but minus the somber feeling. “One for the Fuhrer / One for his child bride / One for wedding / One for the suicide … / One for me / One for you / How did we get so far away from us?” I really like this track. It’s a grouping of everyone and everything into a single track, like some swirling aleph. Master meets protege, good/evil, the poor/billionaires, you/me. This is a song saying we’ve all got a part in making this world a better place. And it isn’t some pie-in-the-sky concept. It’s very real. This song comes off brilliantly, like something Paul Simon might have written. The track ends with Brewer talking about love and empathy, mercy, and human interconnectedness. I couldn’t think of a better note to end an album on. I couldn’t think of a better song to leave in listeners’ ears on their way out into the world. (8)

Musicians on “The People’s Key” are: Conor Oberst (singer), Andy LeMaster, (Now It’s Overhead), Matt Maginn (Cursive), Carla Azar (Autolux), Clark Baechle (The Faint), Shane Aspegren (The Berg Sans Nipple), Laura Burhenn (The Mynabirds) and Denny Brewer (Refried Ice Cream).

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3 thoughts on “BRIGHT EYES | The People’s Key

  1. “He has a tower that watches everything that happens.” I created a piece of artwork in 2003 or 04 that fits the description pretty well. The building is the World Trade Center in Baltimore, and the eye is my own. It’s been the wallpaper on my cell phone for several years now, and my jaw dropped when I heard the girl’s voice insist again almost religiously,“He DOES have a tower that watches everything!” Surreal, indeed.

  2. thanks for this. I didn’t listen to a lot of albums last year, nor do I listen to a lot in general. Still, this is the most thematically unified album I’ve ever heard. It’s maybe genius.

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