Our favorite bands have the dual capacity to inspire and bitterly disappoint us.
My affair with Bright Eyes began a few years ago and has been less an interest than an obsession. Few artists have been able to capture and sustain my admiration as Conor Oberst. Unsurprisingly, his voice hasn’t been the primary luring factor (though he’s significantly improved from his 15–year-old-screeching-in-a-basement days). However, his lyrics, musicianship and the people he has collaborated with on the albums — from constants Mike Mogis and Nathaniel Walcott to the angelic appearance of Maria Taylor and Emmylou Harris — have created a constantly transforming genius. The progression of albums reflects growing maturity with changes in style, culminating in a movement from a bedlam of vocals and instrumentation to incorporations of brilliant orchestration and seamless transitions.
Admittedly, the level of angst on these albums has served as a source of attraction for me, but I will fight anyone who labels Bright Eyes as an “emo” band. Just because a song expresses negative emotions doesn’t make it emo. There’s a difference between melodrama and actually articulating the abstract, at times but not always (“Bowl of Oranges,” anyone?), horrible “things” we can feel as human beings. I will fight you.
I approached Bright Eyes’ newest endeavor, “The People’s Key” with both excitement and trepidation. “Cassadaga” was supposed to be Oberst’s final release under the Bright Eyes title. It was the ultimate conclusion, an offering to appease fans so Oberst could shed the depressed/slightly disturbed persona to embark on new projects, with a poignant and definitive period.
So, how do you treat an unplanned child? Would I find myself congratulating Conor Oberst with clenched teeth, thinking, “What have you done?”
The first time I listened to the album, I was prepared to go into mourning. I heard the voice of Denny Brewer, guitarist for the band Refried Icecream, opening the album and thought, “Why is John Goodman on this album?” I listened to “Shell Games” and was having Mystic Valley nightmares.
Sure I could detect shadows of albums past, but they were merely ghosts of their previous brilliance. Voice recordings are common-
place on opening tracks on Bright Eyes albums (“At the Bottom of Everything,” “A Spindle, A Darkness, A Fever, and A Necklace”), but who was this joker talking about Nazis for two minutes on “Firewall”? Also, clearly Oberst was operating under the impression that he wrote pop songs for Bright Eyes albums. I felt myself not-so-secretly wishing — just as I’d lamented after seeing him perform with the Mystic Valley Band — he was depressed again, so that he could write good music. Love makes you wish horrible things on people.
Then I listened to the album again. And again. And again. I’m thoroughly addicted. “The People’s Key” doesn’t quite feel like a concluding album but more of a transition, a phoenix rising from the ashes of its predecessors, preparing for the next thing. Yes, some lines still make me cringe, such as in “Haile Selassie”: “Pilgrim across the water/We are the same brother” — NO.
However, traces of “Digital Ash In a Digital Urn,” in terms of style and electronic sound, flow with Oberst’s more recent folk influences beautifully. Though the poppy qualities of “Shell Games” and “Jejune Stars” initially horrified me, they infected my brain and never left (nor will I let them). The harmonies on “Triple Spiral” are facemelting. “Beginner’s Mind,” named for a Zen Buddhist concept, pleas for the inner child.
Though presented in the simple rock form, heavy on synthesizer and keyboard ambience, “The People’s Key” is a concept album. The concept? The horribly broad human condition, revolving around the source of evil in humanity and its balance with good — hence the ubiquitous religious and Nazi references. It’s about the plight of the “everyman” and the discovery that everyone shares a similar struggle, that, “You’re not alone in anything/You’re not unique in dying,” as said in “Ladder Song.” It’s about empathy, or as the John Goodman-esque voice says at the end, it’s all about “mercy.” It appears Oberst still believes in symmetry, as the album begins and ends with the idea of “I and I,” that when it comes down to it, we’re all the same; we’re all connected.
Oberst likes to tease audiences, do everything counter to expectations, leave stage before anyone is ready, but he always atones with a three or more song encore. I’m hoping “The People’s Key” is just a piece of what will be a simultaneously cathartic and mind-blowing end.
Katie Brenzel can be reached at email@example.com.