When Rolling Stone published their interview with Conor Oberst almost two years ago, the Omaha native had claimed that the esteemed indie rock band that made him an icon, and post Dylan deity, was coming to an end. “It does feel like it needs to stop at some point. I'd like to clean it up, lock the door, say goodbye.” Not like this would affect the impact Oberst was making on the independent music scene; at the time he was releasing his second album with colleagues the Mystic Valley Band and had released a self-titled solo album, all of which he surprisingly did through Merge rather than the label (Saddle Creek) that had fronted all of previous repertoire since 1998, when Bright Eyes was formed. It was as if he was leaving his past behind, and starting fresh, with the hopes of emerging as an artist reborn. Fans grew skeptical if there would even be a follow up to 2007's folk tinged Cassadaga, until Saddle Creek confirmed the release of Bright Eyes' eighth, and possibly final record, The People's Key, officially out on Oberst's 31st birthday.
If Oberst is known for anything, it's his formidable mastery as a songwriter and poet, over the years concerning himself immensely with the world's current dismal state and rising political issues, translating his activism through songs like 2005's “When The President Talks To God.” The People's Key continues to indulge in his skepticism regarding contemporary society, enlisting Refried Ice Cream's Danny Brewer to give lengthy dialogues pertaining to apocalyptic theories and time travel. Brewer starts off the LP with a two minute discussion of Genesis, space and evolution: “If there is no such thing as time, than you're already there.” Oberst continues this religious vs. science discourse throughout; on the pensive “Approximate Sunlight,” he sings with awe: “I used to dream of time machines/now it's been said we're post everything.” He contemplates the 'essence of life' as he so often has on previous BR recordings.
While he is a pro at tackling broad issues, Oberst is also known to shed perspective on his inner self. He's a dreamer, and as such, though he might have grown up on this record, he still indulges in wonderment: is life a hallucination? Are we are really growing older? Does love really exist? He associates himself with the past, references history, Hitler's evil reign (twice), but somehow, still manages to omit a hint of optimism, and this is where we see how Bright Eyes have evolved since Cassadaga. “We're starting over,” Oberst sings; this is a theme he perpetuates often on People's Key. Maybe he has indeed matured, and is finally ready to leave the past behind, maybe this is last adieu as frontman of a worshipped ensemble that brought him seemingly unwanted attention.
Oberst finds positivity in unlikely places. He embraces Rastafarian dialect on his tribute to Messianic figure Haile Selassie, preaching “keeping all their minds collected, until he comes....” He embraces the solar system but also praises redemption and karma. He's found love and lost, but now he feels he can handle it along with the pressures of being human, and the pressures of being adored. “Here it comes that heavy love, we're never going to move it alone.”
The People's Key will most likely go down as the most musically contrastive of Bright Eyes' impressive catalogue, indulging in synths and electronic influences rather than rootsy Americana, housing more of a pop production from the perennial Mike Mogis. The indie-pop perspective is pervasive here, on tracks like “Shell Games” and dreamy album closer “One For You, One For Me.” It shares little in common with Cassadaga, but like fellow fathers of folk Sufjan Stevens and Sam Beam have diversified their sound, Conor Oberst has followed suit. It's not the strongest Bright Eyes record, but certainly their most evolved, and a triumph for the 31 year old poet, who has shared so much of himself with us.