Back in 2005, Conor Oberst ridiculed George W. Bush with the political protest song “When the President Talks to God.” On his new album, the leader of Bright Eyes is having his own conversation with the Man Upstairs.
The People’s Key is a musical quest for enlightenment, an apocalyptic meditation on the dialectic between faith and science. Now streaming on NPR, the new record is filled with allusions to Christianity and Buddhism and populated by pilgrims and shamans alongside holograms, oscilloscopes, and Jumbotrons. Oberst even name checks Haile Selassie and refers to himself as “I and I,” a phrase he certainly didn’t learn in his native Nebraska.
Bright Eyes, Haile Selassie
Bright Eyes fans will find plenty of the band’s signature angst. (“My private life/Is an inside joke/No one will explain it to me”) But much of that angst comes from questions of existence, not heartbreak. The move to maturity seems natural for a prolific songwriter who turns 31 on February 15, the album’s official release date. On perhaps his last album with Bright Eyes, Oberst steps back to wonder what really matters in life. Yet even as he waves goodbye to his youth, he pleads: “Stay a while/My inner child/I’d like to learn your tricks/To know what makes you tick/To nurse you when you’re sick.”
On The People’s Key, the tones are dark, the reverb is thick, and the mood is eerie. The 10 songs range from guitar rockers to piano ballads and are all pop-song length. Beyond the occasional pedal steel, Oberst has moved away from countrified sounds and embraced a mishmash of styles from blues to punk to reggae. Throughout, there’s a musical interplay between the analog and the digital, a melding of the aesthetics that defined I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the pair of simultaneously released records that made Bright Eyes indie rock royalty in 2005.
The album opens with a cryptic monologue that begins: “If there is no such thing as time, then you’re already there.” From there, the speech references Einstein, Tesla, Hitler, Sumerian tablets, the Book of Genesis, reptilian alien enslavers, and eight parallel universes. Delivered in the folksy tones of Denny Brewer (guitarist for the band Refried Ice Cream) the speech sounds like a collaboration among a hippie sage, a conspiracy theorist, a religious zealot, and a mental patient.
Bright Eyes, Shell Games
After the kooky preamble, the record settles into more familiar turf. “Firewall” features Oberst over a trebly guitar riff in a minor key. “Shell Games” is a pop song with 80s synthesizers and the album’s catchiest chorus: “Here it comes/That heavy love.” And “Jejeune Stars” addresses the fears, anxiety, and self-doubt that have been the hallmark of so many Bright Eyes songs.
As always, the focus is Oberst’s plaintive voice and his literary lyrics. His songs draw on history (Haile Selassie, Caesar) and myth (Sisyphus, Apollo), with observations that range from the hyper-specific (“The quinceañera dress she bought was unstitched with bullets”) to the universal (“Now you are/How you were/When you were real”) He even pulls off a rhyme for that famously unrhymable word ‘orange.’
As the album progresses, the religious themes emerge. “Triple Spiral” meditates on the Christian Trinity. “Beginner’s Mind” borrows a core Zen precept and includes the koan-esque line: “beat a drum that makes no sound.” And “Ladder Song” fuses the two religions, with references to Jesus, Buddha, and mantras.
I first heard Bright Eyes in 2003 via two of my students, girls who wrote poetry, dressed like hippie punks, and adopted an air of studied disaffection. But the songs didn’t grab me until 2004 on a late night drive to New York from Charlottesville. Stuck in traffic on that 350-mile trip, a friend and I flipped on Lifted.., and were stunned by the force of Oberst’s voice, the inventiveness of his lyrics, and the epic gloom and cheer of his music. When the album ended, we sat in silence, then put it back on at the beginning and listened again. And again. And again.
Since then Oberst has evolved from cult hero to pop icon. He has changed sounds, styles, and band mates, from Bright Eyes to the Mystic Valley Band to Monsters of Folk, his collaborations with M. Ward and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. But the essence remains the same: music that haunts and chills
Keith Meatto is co-editor of Frontier Psychiarist. He writes with a blue pen.