Record #452: Bright Eyes – The People’s Key (2011)

the people's key

“If there’s no such thing as time, you’re already there,” asserts the professorial voice that opens the record.

But given that it took me seven years to add this record to my collection, I have to take issue with his claims.

Don’t get me wrong: I was a huge fan of Bright Eyes. I’m Wide Awake, It’s Over fundamentally changed the way I thought of genre divisions and rewrote the trajectory of my songwriting for the next couple years. LIFTED informed much of the lyrical tone I would take on my first couple albums.

But by the time 2011 rolled around, my frame of reference had been blown off of its foundation. a few months with a pop music junkie in Chicago exposed me to the dark post punk of Joy Division, the frantic Krautrock of Can, the noisy dream pop of Deerhunter, and a thousand other artists. I had leaned heavy into the ambience of My Bloody Valentine and Godspeed You! Black Emperor and experimental jazz like Sun Ra and Miles Davis’ electric period.

I was sort of over the whole indie folk thing.

But, as I’ve figured out, so was Connor Oberst.

While The People’s Key maintains Cassadaga’s fascination with supernatural phenomena and conspiracy theory, the sonic palette is far broader. There are a few of the group’s trademark country tinges—”A Machine Spiritual” would fit nicely on LIFTED, “Ladder Song” is a country ballad on a decaying piano—but it’s far from the dominant shade.

“Firewall” slowly burns along an electric guitar riff and an intermittent military snare. “Jejune Stars” is punctuated by metallic blast beats. “Approximate Starlight” rides a dubby drum beat borrowed from Digital Ash. “Haile Selassie” finds Connor at his poppiest. “Triple Spiral” is the closest the group has gotten to a straight punk song.

Yet for the breadth of its scope, The People’s Key is a tightly focused record. Whether that’s due to the conspiracy theorist’s voice that weaves through the entire record or Oberst’s intention to leave Bright Eyes on a high note, I don’t know. But what I do know is that this is a fitting finale for such a storied band.

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