The People’s Key is interrupted throughout with weighty speeches, but they don’t come from some fringe preacher. Instead, they come from Denny Brewer, guitarist for Refried Ice Cream and member of Bright Eyes on this record. The clips of him speaking are odd, often half-baked and open-ended, with vague cosmic implications but no clear point.
While Brewer plays at preaching, though, Conor Oberst seems to have a more believable focus on The People’s Key, which is (apparently) the final Bright Eyes album. Oberst wants to return to a simpler time — no surprise from a guy who named his band after a Shirley Temple movie — when “we used to dream of time machines” back before we became, according to him “post-everything.” If this doesn’t exactly line-up with his carefully built on-stage persona, it still comes off as somehow honest on this record. Part of this comes from a returned focus to detail. Where 2007’s Cassadaga dealt in sledgehammer-subtle political venting, The People’s Key is less inclined to aim for the capital-P Point and more interested in building a notion.
To get at that lost time, Oberst laces the album with careful imagery. Opener “Firewall” has Oberst “walking through the Land of Tomorrow.” He’s surrounded by artifacts of the innocent time he envisions, toy versions of both martians and gods. But this lost Americana is also within him, as he claims his “veins are full of flat cherry cola.” These moments, and many more like it, show the “cloudy nostalgia” he mentions in “Jejune Stars,” and they even leak into his own personal history. He knowingly talks about his early days as Bright Eyes on “Shell Games”, talking about how he “sold his tortured youth.” Rather than let that go, though, he stubbornly clings to it. “I’m still angry with no reason to be,” he claims, sounding less disappointed than pleased to still have that youthful feeling.
As he looks back, though, he moves the band forward. If this is Bright Eyes saying goodbye, they say goodbye as a rock band. The best moments here are lean and powerful. “Jejune Stars” with its driving drums and sinister riffs is as catchy and bracing a song as Oberst has ever written. Elsewhere, “Triple Spiral” and “Shell Games” assume a similar power-pop feel, and in these moments you can feel Bright Eyes — now at its base a trio of Oberst, Mike Mogis, and Nathaniel Wolcott — shedding the crushing atmosphere of past records for something more immediate and vibrant.
But for an album that pines for a more innocent time, a less confusing, self-aware time, The People’s Key is oddly undone by its own set of unnecessary technologies. Oberst’s vocals are way up in the mix, and frequently overbearing. They’re soaked in echo, and sometimes layered in other needless effects — like the watery break in “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key).” Drums, often doubled-up with programmed beats, also intrude on these songs. “One for You, One for Me” is particularly affected, as what could be a powerful, bright closer becomes sanded-down and toothless with its slick over-production.
The sheer volume of vocals and drums, combined with airy keys makes for too many moments here that feel crowded and confused. The best songs on the album show Oberst smartly moving sonically away from his recent Americana kick — even as he sticks with it thematically — to realize a powerful pop sound. In those spots, Bright Eyes sound like something fully realized, something Oberst is confidently ready to close the book on. The rest of this, though, feels strangely overthought for an album about a return to simplicity. In Denny Brewer’s ruminations — which also clutter the record more than they unify it — he accidentally stumbles on a fitting idea, about finding balance between positive and negative forces, so that one can’t overpower the other. Despite its strong moments, The People’s Key never quite manages that balance between what’s working and what’s overworked.