“The People’s Key”

2 stars (out of 5)


Confused? You will be, but probably not as confused as Conor Oberst appears to be on the basis of the latest Bright Eyes offering “The People’s Key”. The album, released this week, probably has the most commercial and accessible mainstream sound Oberst has created to date coupled with lyrical content which is often irritatingly obtuse.

On first listen, “The People’s Key” impresses on a musical level; there are melodies which are instantly accessible and loads of instrumental hooks and riffs to pull you in to the arrangements. The vocals display Oberst’s voice at its best, emphasising the plaintive, keening qualities to good effect especially when it’s pushed to the point of cracking. Even when the voice is thickened up by overlaying it with a slight delay, the effect works and the production wrings out the maximum emotional effect from the vocal line.

There’s a very commercial feel to the big choruses of “Shell Games”, “Jejune Stars” and “Triple Spiral” which offer a contrast to the stark piano backing of “Ladder Song” towards the end of the album. Musically, the album offers a variety of styles with plenty of light and shade, good melodies and interesting arrangements and good, bordering on great, vocal performances. Then you start to listen a little bit more closely to the lyrical content, and that’s where the problems start.

The opening track “Firewall” sets the scene for the rest of the album and exposes most of its problems. The track opens with a rambling, mystical, pseudo-scientific spoken piece referring to the Sumerian Tablets (never a good sign) which links aliens to the birth of mankind and ultimately to Hitler. This is the kind of stuff which you might expect to hear from a stoned hippie but not as the intro to an influential album. This nonsense also reappears later in the album and there’s nothing to suggest that it’s ironic, so the best we can assume is that there’s some theological and scientific confusion going on. Lyrically the song contains several references to Rastfarianism and a reference towards the end of the song to “crooked crosses” (bear with me here).

The lyrics throughout the album seem to be confessional and hinting at some sort of crisis of faith (particularly in “Triple Spiral”) and a lack of certainty which you wouldn’t normally associate with Conor Oberst. Trying to deconstruct the lyrics doesn’t really help, because they seem to have been written in a code which hints at general themes without actually making anything explicit. Very enigmatic, but ultimately very frustrating because we’re always left on the edge of understanding what’s going on.

It’s easy to pick out the references to Rastafarianism and Christianity running through the album and hinting at some sort of personal spiritual crisis, but it’s a little more concerning to hear a couple of lyrical references to Eva Braun and Hitler along with the “crooked crosses” mentioned earlier. The combination of these references and the spoken word sections throughout the album point to a worrying tendency towards an unexpected New Age mysticism and some of the some strange philosophies spinning out from this. It’s sloppy and we deserve better than this.

Musically it’s great, but the verbal content makes the overall experience very frustrating.

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