The People’s Key, Bright Eyes’ eighth album, begins with the ramblings of a crazy man. He begins with a simple-enough musing on man’s place in the universe over a neutral hum, but as he begins talking about the reptilian beings getting out of the chariots of fire, the drone changes to something ominous. As his narrative gets more and more out there, the music swells in its despair, as if in pity of the man’s delusions.
This relationship between music and words drives The People’s Key. While nearly the rest of the album is written and sung by Conor Oberst, the jury is still out as to whether he is just as delusional as the man who begins the record. Oberst seeks an amount of internal consonance, while simultaneously denying himself any chance at resolution in a self-destructive streak. This contradiction is what makes Bright Eyes compelling to listen to.
However, on The People’s Key, the songs sound better if you don’t try to pick apart the lyrics like it was Macbeth in 11th grade. That’s not mean that as a slight, but it’s better to focus on the relationship of the music and the sound of the lyrics than the content of them. The brilliance of the album is taking individual phrases and matching them with perfect tonal or dynamic shifts. The alternately piano and guitar-driven songs are masterfully crafted, and contain enough tension to drive even the longer ones. It is compelling when you hear, “I’m never gonna move it alone,” and the EQ’d guitars and drums kick in, as in “Shell Game.” It gets less compelling when you realize Oberst is singing about religious symbols and their ambiguous validity.
The trouble with that subject matter is that it’s only great when done brilliantly, otherwise it falls short into platitudes and vague questions without answers. The interesting part of Oberst’s treatment of it is his own isolation—really, has he ever written about anything else?—but sometimes it feels so universal as to be devoid of meaning. Instead of writing how alone he feels around people—which is compelling because he has details to back up his stories—Oberst writes about how alone he feels in the Grand Scheme Of Things. And it’s hard to write stories about that—you just gotta crib religious motifs and insert vague musings.
This is no less raw, and no less resonant, than anything else Oberst has done. He cares about God, or the absence thereof, just as much as any girl (or the absence thereof). The problem lies in conveying the subject matter to the audience. Instead, Oberst’s delivery—shaky but meaningful (although less pained than in previous records), and resonant in itself—is the key here. The best thing to do on The People’s Key isn’t to connect with Oberst’s lyrics. It’s to connect with how connected Oberst is with what he’s singing.