The People’s Key

Bright Eyes is back. The People’s Key is the band’s first official album since 2007’s Cassadaga (although frontman Conor Oberst has kept busy with solo releases and side projects).

Bright Eyes’ defining trait has always been their unpredictability. Oberst will play anything from heavily-synthesized electronica (Digital Ash in a Digital Urn) to folksy roots-rock (Cassadaga) on a whim, so when Rilo Kiley’s drummer Jason Boesel called The People’s Key as the “best sci-fi emo album of the last 20 years!!!” it wasn’t hard to believe.

And for what it’s worth, that’s true. For their latest release, Bright Eyes have found yet another new sound. The People’s Key combines the bouncy new wave of Digital Ash with touches of Lifted and Cassadaga’s honky tonk. It makes for a sound that manages to be remarkably distinctive and oddly familiar at the same time. Synth riffs that wouldn’t be out of place in a Franz Ferdinand song eight years ago are painted with dirty twangy touches of Patsy Cline-style guitar. And the instrumentation isn’t the only thing that’s changed.

It’s a cliche at this point to say that Conor Oberst has come a long way as a songwriter, as true as it is. The People’s Key continues a trend that’s been developing for Oberst’s entire career. His early popularity was due in large part to his viciously introspective and sullen lyrics — lyrics that also got him dismissed as an immature, emo Dylan-wannabe.

Now, nine years after his first smash hit album, Oberst’s had time to reflect on his life and career and his maturity is obvious. The majority of the songs on the album are upbeat and accessible, with little of the pessimism that defined early Bright Eyes. Even “Ladder Song,” the most traditionally Bright Eyes song on the album, can’t bring down the sheer exuberance of these tracks.

The problem is, Conor Oberst really isn’t Conor Oberst if he’s not doing the sad Nebraska kid routine. As catchy and positive and utterly listenable as these songs are, they never match the sheer affecting rawness that early Bright Eyes achieved. The People’s Key makes for a great indie rock album, but only a decent Bright Eyes album.

Wyatt Anderson