BRIGHT EYES: THE PEOPLE'S KEY (2011)
1) Firewall; 2) Shell Games; 3) Jejune Stars; 4) Approximate Sunlight; 5) Haile Selassie; 6) A Machine Spiritual; 7) Triple Spiral; 8) Beginner's Mind; 9) Ladder Song; 10) One For You, One For Me.
For three whole years, the world was free from the oppression of Bright Eyes, but not from Conor Oberst, who used the time to play around with several new projects: «Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band» and «Monsters of Folk» among them. Then it was suddenly announced that, with one last album, Oberst would retire the «Bright Eyes» label completely. Accompanied with predictable commentary — that the brand name has outlasted itself, that it was time to move on, leaving the past behind etc.
Now I would be the last person in the world to expect a «grand exit»-style last album from Bright Eyes, but I do admit to a little anticipatory trepidation. What if Conor had decided to «pull all the stops»? Would that mean twelve-minute long howling ballads to the sound of a battered, out-of-tune acoustic guitar? Could that signify retreating into the safety of his bedroom, so as to make that hoarse, creaky, skipping lo-fi epic to put all lo-fi epics to shame? Might that imply using up all of the accumulated money to hire every single professional country musician in Nashville, so as to record the loudest ever version of ʽThat Silver-Haired Daddy Of Mineʼ, retitled as ʽThat Shiver-Sending Nightmare On My Mindʼ?
Wrong on all counts. The last album by Bright Eyes — if this is, indeed, the last album by Bright Eyes — is just a normal rock'n'roll album, much like Cassadaga was just a normal «nu-country» album. Other than a slightly above-ordinary emphasis on Rastafarian matters in the lyrics, and recurring bullshit voiceovers from some pretentious crackpot propagating pseudo-New-Age-nonsense about the «Superuniverse», The People's Key is just yer basic singer-songwriter's rock-a-pop. Quite restrained, concise, relatively harmless. Not too exciting — but not without an occasional modest charm or two. Had this been my first Bright Eyes experience, I might have greeted it very warmly; as it is presumably my last one, I am almost tempted to regard it as a subtle apology on Conor's part. «Hey guys, I guess I'm sorry for having bullshat you over all these years — here's a little something I cooked up for you that you might, perhaps, find more palatable».
These are all fully arranged, well fleshed out compositions, sometimes in the form of bombastic arena rock, sometimes bluesy, sometimes power-balladeerish, loaded with electronic vignettes, processed guitar effects, and prime time Oberstian lyrics, working overtime to avoid, stun, and disarm clichés and trivialities. From the subtly threatening blues-rock chords of ʽFirewallʼ that opens the album and right down to the sprawling, anthemic keyboards and funky percussion of ʽOne For You, One For Meʼ that closes it — The People's Key is beyond technical reproach.
Too bad I can no longer enjoy any of it. Honestly, some of these songs at least may rank as the best he's ever written — there are even shades of original catchy vocal melodies on ʽShell Gamesʼ, ʽLadder Songʼ, and a few others — but all of it leaves me cold, because the spirit of Bright Eyes remains exactly the same and cannot possibly change, since any radical change in Conor Oberst would ruin his game: sincerity has always been his biggest asset, and if he drops or even slightly shifts those pathetic-melancholic intonations — well, we will end up with a different Conor Oberst, and would that mean that the previous one has been insincere? Or the new one?..
Anyway, all of these songs are totally accessible, sensible, and probably as honest as anything the son of a bitch has ever written. They are not even as depressed and moronically suicidal as they used to be: a farewell should be farewell-ish, and most of the sadness here is consciously balanced with intelligent optimism — even as the lyrics of ʽOne For You, One For Meʼ seem to chastise humanity for its sliding away from the ideal of Oneness, its upbeat rhythmic pattern and (perhaps ironic) vocal enthusiasm disseminates a little hope, at least among those who cannot be bothered to study the words too closely. Besides, all these Rastafari references — how can a record like this be an exercise in total depression?
I guess I'm not entirely through with Oberst — there is still this bit of mystery as to how come I am so totally, utterly bored with an album like this, where nothing much irritates per se, other than the obnoxious guy chattering away about Einstein and Sumerian tablets. Somehow, all of these hooks, guitar and synth tones, vocal intonations, etc., still come across as totally bland; but it will take time to understand if it's really just the earlier anti-Oberst sentiment rising in vehement bias here, or if the man is so genuinely and utterly devoid of talent when it comes to anything other than putting words on paper. In the meantime, my thumbs are frozen, and everybody is welcome to observe the purity of experiment and start his/her study of Bright Eyes with their last album — The People's Key, a title that should probably be better suited for the likes of Grand Funk Railroad or Hank Williams Jr., but somehow ended up used by a guy who is one of the least apt candidates for a true «people's artist» in the modern world. Oh, that Conor and his endlessly wasted stream of pointless irony.
Check "The People's Key" (MP3) on Amazon