Despite his best efforts during the last three years to abandon the perpetually-angsty Bright Eyes moniker, Conor Oberst continues to carry the burden of the project’s name.
Regardless of the delivery or substance of the music being released, Oberst continues to be best associated with the alcohol-induced frenzy of the nine albums he has previously released under the Bright Eyes banner. For a while, the band seemed to be abandoned after Oberst released two albums with alt-country rockers The Mystic Valley Band.
But Oberst and band-mate Mike Mogis have returned with the release of “The People’s Key” — an album attempting to combine the lyrical vulnerabilities of previous Bright Eyes material, with the pop-confidence Oberst developed during his time with The Mystic Valley Band.
Like 2007’s “Cassadaga,” “The People’s Key” has Oberst moving away from the introverted songwriting that typified earlier Bright Eyes material in favor of Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen’s romantic Americana. In “One For You, One For Me” Oberst recalls the same vision of the country his idols created decades earlier of social inequality and suburban romanticism: “One for the weary, one for the malcontent/One for the master, one for the protégé /One for you, and one for me.” Although Oberst is well-versed in this tradition, “One For You, One For Me” lacks the passionate delivery of his fore-bearers, causing it to fall flat and resemble little more than a failed attempt at American Romanticism.
While “The People’s Key” does have its share of missteps, the album’s strongest track is the synth-driven “Shell Games,” which has Oberst reevaluating the emotional turmoil that established him as a musician years earlier: “Death obsessed like a teenager/Sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar/I’m still angry with no reason to be.”
It’s a powerful song, alluding to Oberst’s strongest attribute and curse as a musician: his inherent ability to portray immense sadness with relative ease. While tracks like “Shell Games” and the sparse sociopathic ballad “Approximate Sunlight” benefit from this ability, the album’s weakest moments like “Jejune Stars” come from Oberst’s attempts to merge his new-found pop-sensibility with his innate emotional ferocity.
In the end, “The People’s Key” lacks the confessional and fragile brilliance of Oberst’s earlier and ultimately stronger work. Although Bright Eyes had been shelved for the past three years, its return is less than triumphant and the final product is an album that is missing everything that made fans fall in love with Bright Eyes years ago.