The People’s Key

Posted on February 26, 2011 by

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Bright Eyes - "The People's Key"

CD Review: Bright Eyes, “The People’s Key” – Released February 15, 2011

By Brian Dau

The “Key” in “The People’s Key,” the title of the latest album by Nebraska-based indie rockers Bright Eyes, refers to G major (because it’s easy to play and many popular songs are written in it). But for which people did Conor Oberst and company make this album?

Not for everyone, certainly. The album’s ten tracks are interspersed with recordings of the schizophrenic rambling of a man who is either homeless or possibly a theoretical physicist, suggesting that we’re dealing with real, serious issues here (in music, nothing is more “real” than a homeless person).

Conor Oberst, the James Franco of indie music. (Photo via ravenhouseltd.com)

In contrast, the music itself is largely upbeat, accentuated with airy guitar flourishes, a driving drum beat and pulsating synths. The only discouraging aspect of the music is Oberst’s voice, which is flush with reverb and manages to sound melancholy and distant amidst even the most uplifting instrumentals.

It’s important to note here that Oberst is one of those remarkable musicians from whom music seems to constantly spring forth. He’s amassed such a collection of side groups, supergroups and solo albums it’s hard to imagine how his fans keep track of it all. They must manage in some way, however, because through his career he’s developed a sizable following and a significant amount of critical acclaim. As an example, 2007’s “Cassadaga,” the most recent Bright Eyes release prior to “The People’s Key,” debuted at number four on the U.S. Billboard 200 and Rolling Stone named Oberst its “Best Songwriter of 2008.”

“Why can’t Conor Oberst just be happy already?” (Photo via jking89)

Thus, fans already well acquainted with Oberst will know what they’re getting into with this release, and they’ll probably like it just fine. For everyone else, this album will feel a lot like trying to eat an entire pie in one sitting: you can’t get enough of it at first, but soon you start losing interest until eventually you leave it unfinished, vowing never to touch it again (and probably feeling a little depressed afterward).

The 30-year-old frontman sings like he wants to be happy but doesn’t know how, and this struggle is the album’s most interesting feature. “Shell Games,” the standout track on “The People’s Key,” is the best example of Oberst’s vocals sparring with his bandmate’s instruments, but the track alone isn’t enough to save an album that is generally so cliché it may as well be a caricature of indie music.

This is a plateau. It’s difficult to judge how catatonic it’s being at the moment. (Photo via Wonderlane)

Folksy guitar riffs? Check. Backing singers who “ooh and ahh” and harmonize during the choruses? Check. Soft, vaguely tribal drumming during the slower tracks? Check. Lyrics with big words and complex metaphors (comparing the mind to “a catatonic plateau,” for example)? So indie.

Clearly, then, this is music for intellectuals: the college students and coffee-shop dwellers who make up the “indie scene.” But aside from a surprising and welcome bit of double-bass drumming during “Jejune Stars,” these songs pass like clockwork, pleasant enough but never ascending to anything particularly memorable. Bright Eyes may have made “The People’s Key” for smart people, but the smartest would do well to look for more musically ambitious material elsewhere.

Brian Dau

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Posted in: MusicSTALK