If The People’s Key really is the final Bright Eyes release as alleged, then it’s a fitting finale. It deviates a bit from the traditional Bright Eyes formula – it’s more electronic than acoustic – but combined with Desapericidos’ Read Music/Speak Spanish and Bright Eyes’ black sheep record Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, forms an unofficial electronic trilogy. Despite its sonic deviation, the lyrical content covers traditional Conor Oberst themes (clocks, the passing of time). Even criticizing the record for sounding too different from the majority of Bright Eyes releases seem irrelevant given the record’s preoccupation with the path not taken.
But then, Bright Eyes never truly stuck to one given sound, morphing from lo-fi bedroom pop to country/bluegrass with detours in indie rock and electronica. It’s odd, then, that Oberst would retire the Bright Eyes moniker, especially since we already went through this with the release of Conor Oberst by Conor Oberst and The Mystic Valley Band in 2008.
Whatever. If you’ve had a love/hate relationship with Oberst like I have over the last decade (and sometimes it really was easier to hate him), then The People’s Key should be a rewarding listen. It’s not a return to politics or folk music, but it shows that Oberst still has a way with words. On a personal level, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found myself relating more and more to Digital Ash, an electronic-tinged indie record about the passage of life and death. Key isn’t as good or as deep, but tunes like “Shell Games” and “Ladder Song” carry that same love and longing. It’s the sort of late period turnaround that could only appeal to old fans.
The record has a haze to it with computer bleeps punctuating Oberst’s quavering voice. It’s sequenced well enough, although “Approximate Sunlight” sucks out all of the energy of the first three songs. Detractors and jaded ex-fans will be bothered by the record’s insane spoken word segments. I almost didn’t buy the album after streaming opener “Firewall” on NPR only to find out that the first four minutes or so consist of a crazed voice talking about lizard men who can jump between dimensions. But taken overall, The People’s Key is a solid goodbye for fans who might have dismissed Oberst after 2006’s underwhelming Cassadaga.