The People's Key
(Saddle Creek; 2011)
By Jessica Faulds | 12 February 2011
My high school band teacher told this joke about Mariah Carey. It went:
Q: Why does Mariah Carey sing so many vocal runs?
A: Because she can.
Which, aside from illuminating the fact that my band nerd friends and I spent a hefty portion of our time as teenagers deconstructing our own and other people’s “runs,” is pretty epically unfunny. But it contains at its core a kernel of wisdom: just because you can do something doesn’t necessarily mean you should. That Mariah was never likely to swallow that particular nugget has never mattered much to me, but now that Conor Oberst has given himself entirely over to the sin of excess, the ghost of my sixteen-year-old self has finally snapped to attention. Because though his bleating delivery forever bars him from being a diva, Oberst has nevertheless made the Mariah-worthy gaffe of sacrificing good taste to technical possibility.
For Bright Eyes, the confusion between is and ought gets really thick and sticky in the studio. Somewhere along the line, “I can run my voice through a different vocal filter for each verse, chorus, and bridge” was transmuted into, “I should flip reverbs every few minutes,” and “Hey, I can write zippy Chris Walla-esque synth riffs and pop-punk guitar plunkers,” turned into, well, “Shell Games.” As a result of this more-is-more ethos, The People’s Key is simply overstuffed. “Jejune Stars” sprinkles blast-beats in among its indie rock platitudes, and “Beginner’s Mind” tops its chunky rock guitars with the occasional zany synth shitstorm. In theory, it actually sounds kind of intriguing, but in order to support this kind of jam-packed aesthetic, songs need to be structured to withstand the weight. These songs, however, sound like they were written to be understated folk rambles, and the band decided to pile on the layers (and layers and layers) after the fact. The overzealous production drowns out the spaces, the dust-settling moments in which realization thuds into place, that Bright Eyes was once known for.
The nebulous everything-and-nothing subject matter doesn’t help. With an overarching theme of “mystical spirituality,” The People’s Key reaches for an Ouroboros-like sense of non-specific yet profound meaning, which in the end is muffled because it’s too busy swallowing itself to actually say anything. This has been labeled Bright Eyes’ sci-fi album, but early on it becomes evident that “sci-fi” is actually code for flaky metaphysics, and that Bright Eyes is through cataloging mere human experience, turning instead to semi-lucid spiritual meanderings.
A shame, because Oberst has always had a talent for sudden, prescient one-liners. He cut the cynic off at the knees with, “If you swear that there’s no truth and who cares / How come you say it like you’re right?” And who can forget the petulantly resonant request: “I want a lover I don’t have to love”? He has a way of following fibres of truth back to the bone. Yet Oberst makes only occasional use of this skill on The People’s Key, and the moments of clarity are buried among babbling expositions such as, “Papa hobo don’t hide your eyes / Mother mountain don’t kill your unborn child / His day is coming / His day is coming.” Seriously: huh? What does that even remotely mean? Meanwhile, on “One For You, One For Me,” Oberst is clearly vibrating at the same frequency as contemporary Sam Beam of Iron & Wine—so much so that I can just yank a line from Mark’s review of Kiss Each Other Clean and note that “obviously opposite ideas arranged in couplets are apparently in vogue again.”
And just before the angry emails come rolling in, I want to openly declare one thing: I love Bright Eyes. I have followed Oberst since my own overwrought teen years and found that his sentiments unfailingly mirrored my own. Even now, I want nothing more than for Conor Oberst to sing my own heart back to me. His early raw, solipsistic turmoil was so much more than the maligned “emo” tag suggested; it was an expression of frail humanity and was fearless in a way only youth seems to allow for. And when, on I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning (2005), Oberst finally transmuted angst into something much more profound—actual sadness—and breathed urgent life into the tired old “love is war” metaphor, I knew I was finally an adult. In a way, even the grasping misstep of Cassadaga (2007) was understandable. Intentionally or not, it was a cooling period, a coming-down from the headiness of emotion-fueled action. A shrug, and “now what?” Now, however, Oberst seems to have decided the next step is to accept the mantle of adult contemporary. He has swapped emotions for ideas, and cool responsibility has replaced the fuck-it-all flamboyance. Which is where he’s lost me, because I’m still convinced that the late 20s are an age for rediscovering the Pixies and quitting your semi-respectable job to work at a call centre. Daniel Johnston still lives with his parents, so why the big hurry to grow up?
The People’s Key is not a bad album. In fact, boil the meat off these tracks, and you’d probably have the skeleton of a quite good album. But while, say, the New Pornographers are at the best when they’re churning out chugging rock anthems bursting at the seams with flourishes and group shouts, Bright Eyes has historically needed elbow room to navigate his own narratives. Of course, no artist wants to stagnate in his own formula, and so Oberst can’t be faulted for trying to move past the conventions that have served him so well in the past. And in a certain light, The People’s Key just represents another step along a tried and true rock and roll path: the passionate newcomer’s success lasts long enough for him to get bored, and so he steps into a new psychedelic realm, be it drugs or religion or David Icke reptile theories. What remains to be seen is whether Oberst will successfully synthesize his own brand of mind-expansion with his music (a la the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”) or just sink into mediocrity, grow a Jim Morrison pot belly, and start waving his dick around at concerts.
I know a lot of people would love to see Oberst progress from precious teen warbler to jaded meat-sack, but I’m not one of them. If he can offer me just one more album’s worth of the controlled chaos found on I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, then I’ll wait out the Cassadaga‘s and People’s Key‘s with pleasure. So, Conor Oberst can have the rock and roll journey—dive into the oblivion of slick production, eat the lotus flower, find God, and make a vocoder album; it’s fine. Just as long as he makes it back in time to narrate the rest of my life.