Bright Eyes' Feb. 15 album, The People's Key, is a journey through the foreign mind of frontman Conor Oberst, who returns from his many solo projects to team up with band mates Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott for the new album.
Opener "Firewall" and the bizarre mutterings of Texas-psychedelic blues band lead singer Denny Brewer set us up for what turns out to be a very odd journey into a science fiction space.
The sci-fi threads running through The People's Key are what make it feel cohesive, but they also give the album a distance from its listener. The concept mirrors that of Cassadaga (2007), but the individual songs hold something for everyone. Oberst's sound could almost come full circle in The People's Key, and yet it doesn't. Though the album contains some familiar elements, the overall effect is far removed from the listener's comfort zone.
Oberst's narration, set to the musical backing of his band mates, leads us through the twisted, out-of-our-element saga. Bright Eyes certainly has the astute ability to tackle the huge and out-of-this-world topics on People's Key. Oberst, the acclaimed songwriter, shows off with lyrics like "I used to dream of everything / It's been said we're post everything" and, "Now you are / how you were / when you were real" in "Approximate Sunlight." And those are simple lines; many others are filled with brilliant, psychedelic imagery. In true Oberst style, the album is filled with smart allusions; the album morphs historical allusions and references Rastafarian ideas.
Walcott and Mogis work diligently to back Oberst's lofty, estranged lyrics and create an electro-folk blend. The two tones serve to marry the rootsy Americana of Oberst's latest solo endeavors with Bright Eyes' pop, new wave feel.
The sixth track, "A Machine Spiritual (In the People's Key)" is reminiscent of 2005's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. The track marks a return to the band's home-grown sound and Oberst's tense sadness. "Spiritual" also carries the weight of the album in its complexity and heavy themes, referencing history and eventually declaring, "We're starting over."
As the album progresses, tracks like "Triple Spiral" and "Beginner's Mind" hammer out the same clever, spiritual concepts, but they seem to fall flat.
The album's ninth track, "Ladder Song," slows things down with a tribute to a friend Oberst lost to suicide during the production of the album. "Ladder Song" seems to finally steer our spaceship home, a welcome awakening after having fallen "asleep reading science fiction," Oberst sings. "Ladder Song" is an intimate look at Oberst's beloved dark side; we are treated to deep lyrics that retain an authentic sentiment. But even the gravity of this song lacks the poignant execution of Oberst's previous ballads.
The album ends with "One for You, One for Me," a collective "cheers!" backed by the contemporary vibe of Oberst's cohorts. The closer, like several of the other songs on People's Key, is catchy and begs to be heard live. "One for You, One for Me" points to the possibility that the distance of the album's themes could be remedied when Bright Eyes takes it on the road starting this week.