This is Bright Eyes’ last album, says frontman Conor Oberst. There will be no more after this. With the honest relationship Oberst has with his fans, they believe it. It’s no Jay-Z or Cher or Brett Favre act. Bright Eyes has one more in the tank, and its cult-like fans have been waiting and expecting only the best send-off from one of the most rapidly evolving bands still active.
Conor Oberst graduated from his emo roots in 2004 with I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, trading in the buckets of tears for a ten-gallon Stetson. Now he’s shed his labels again, turning from country western cowboy to indie rock star for The People’s Key. In place of folk ballads, there is darkness, distance and reverb in a minor key. In place of slide guitars, there is the punching synth line in “Shell Games” and heavy metal drumming in “Jejune Stars.” In place of highways and Mexican mysticism, there are drug-infused creation stories and silver spaceships.
Lyrically, Oberst flexes his range. In 47 minutes, he calls upon Führers, Caesars, Rastafarian messiahs, sci-fi writers, hypocrites and innocents. As usual, his pen is more powerful than his axe. “Ladder Song,” one of the most hauntingly overcast songs in Oberst’s discography, is dedicated to death and escapism. “Beginner’s Mind” is a struggle for idealism. “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key)” is a futurist’s peek into the mechanized future of exponential progress.
The People’s Key is yet another brilliant record to add to Bright Eyes’ history of consistency. Unlike Cassadaga, I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and Oberst’s recent side projects, The People’s Key remains emotionally distant throughout, similar to the generally overlooked Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. This time, however, Oberst has brought out some of his best vocal melodies and enough instrumental diversity to give each track a separate identity.
As the credits roll on the 14-year epic that is Bright Eyes, “One for You, One for Me” gives a proper toast to, well, just about everything and everyone, from masters and billionaires to protégés and breadlines. “Now that we’ve come so far away from us,” Oberst sings at its close, “Now that we’ve come too far to say / ‘You and me, you and me’ / That is an awful lie / It’s I and I / It’s I and I.” Figure that one out for yourselves, Bright Eyes fans.