Newcomers to the music of Bright Eyes, aka Conor Oberst and Co., will probably be left scratching their heads as the first couple minutes or so of the band’s new record, The People’s Key, begin to play. Bright Eyes has a long history of starting their albums with atmosphere-setting intros, often partially spoken word, that envelop the listener in a dense auditory web and lead seamlessly into the first song. The People’s Key is no exception, and the intro – two and a half minutes of a man sharing his views on reptilian space creatures, the fourth dimension, and the nature of time, among other things – is a mind trip that sets the stage for a wonderfully different album.
Bright Eyes, a band that started right here in Omaha, has made a name for itself based on front man Conor Oberst’s deep, introspective lyrics and brilliant musical layering by recording-studio-wizard/bandmate Mike Mogis. For this album, the core members of Bright Eyes – Oberst, Mogis, and trumpet/keyboard player Nate Walcott – are joined by a diverse group of musicians including members of The Mynabirds, The Faint, Now It’s Overheard, and Cursive, among others.
The band continues the trend set by their 2007 album, Cassadaga, with soaring vocal harmonies and a very well-produced feeling overall; but where Cassadaga could be called ‘folk-rock’, The People’s Key is resolutely not. The fiddle parts are gone, as are the pleasant organ and mandolin melodies that were present in the previous effort. In their place are synthesizers, driving drum beats, and a cosmic theme.
From the brilliantly head-scratching spoken-word opener, “Firewall,” Oberst comes out swinging with his trademark deep-but-catchy lyrics. Lines like “Walking through the land of tomorrow/Martian trinkets, plastic Apollos” spin lyrical tales for the listener and beg to be explored deeper. The poetic content continues to amaze as Oberst explores pilgrimages, Ethiopian messiahs, and the overall strangeness of life in the song ”Haile Selassie.” The casual listener will be enthralled with the lustrous use of imagery in the lyrics and, given a closer look, will find a deeper soul-searching theme that connects the songs as a whole.
The direction the band takes on songs like “Shell Games” and “Jejune Stars” throws the traditional quiet-singer-songwriter mold out the window and chooses instead to rock out. Not since 1998’s Letting Off the Happiness, has Bright Eyes jammed out as hard as they do here. The spacey theme mentioned earlier is in full bloom on these tracks, and serves as the backbone to an intense roller coaster ride that ranges from subdued to full throttle.
As the listener comes to the album’s spiritual ‘title song’ – aptly named “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key)” – the music reaches a climax and begins a freefall though the ethereal atmosphere that it has constructed in a short 30 minutes. But before it glides back into the CD case, record sleeve, or ipod from whence it came, The People’s Key jolts back to life and spirals upwards with “Triple Spiral” and “Beginner’s Mind.” The slower, piano-driven “Ladder Song” provides a fitting transition into the closer, “One for You, One for Me.”
For those of you who fancy physical media (i.e. CDs and records) you should be delighted to know that the album was released by local independent record label Saddle Creek Records. This means that the album got the royal treatment afforded to many independent artists, including some very impressive packaging and an intricate tri-fold record jacket. The People’s Key is available on vinyl, CD, and digital download through Saddle Creek’s website, http://www.saddle-creek.com.
Taken song by song, the album is a loose collection of introspective lyrics, catchy hooks, and shimmering synth melodies, and each song is very good by itself. But this isn’t the newest KE$HA single. This is Bright Eyes, and it deserves to be listened to as a whole. If you are inclined to like ‘independent’ music, take an hour to sit back and listen to the album start to finish. You’ll be glad you did.
Genre: Indie Rock
Artist: Bright Eyes
Number of Tracks: 10
Available: Online at http://www.saddle-creek.com starting at $8, or at music stores nationwide on February 15th, 2011