By Al Kaufman
“How sad it is to know I’m in control,” sings Conor Oberst on “Triple Spiral,” a melancholy song of loss with an upbeat melody. Indeed, Oberst and his accomplices, Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, have never sounded more in control than they do on this, their seventh release. The country-folk/Americana tag is all but gone here. So are Oberst’s whines and tirades. He leaves those to friend Danny Brewer, guitarist for Refried Ice Cream, who here takes on the role of lunatic preacher, whose between song rambles discuss salvation and how aliens gave birth to our world.
Brewer is a slight distraction on what is clearly the most mature Bright Eyes album to date. Oberst, now in his 30s, no longer feels the need to spit bile and shout platitudes. There is still a touch of heavy-handedness (“One for the Fuhrer/One for his child bride/One for the wedding/One for the suicide,” he sings on ’80s synth-beat driven “One for You, One for Me”), but The People’s Key has a more personal, spiritual bent to it. Oberst, in his own colorful way, looks inward instead of striking out, trying to make sense of it all. In doing so, he sounds more mature than he ever has before.
But it is the music that distinguishes The People’s Key from previous Bright Eyes releases. The trio incorporates synth flourishes and beats. There is an ominous, industrial feel to “A Machine Spiritual (in the People’s Key).” “Firewall” and “Approximate Sunlight” have a certain Pink Floyd circa The Wall feel to them.
The People’s Key is a rock ‘n’ roll record, from the surf guitar that leads into “Jejune Eyes,” to the heavy percussion on “Haile Selassie.” Oberst and friends have never sounded more in control. Oberst has said this will be the last Bright Eyes album (although has since made some comments that are leading people to think otherwise). If it is, is a great note on which to bow out, but it would certainly leave people wondering, “What else were they capable of?”
Bright Eyes plays the Tabernacle Friday, March 4.