Millennial Masterpieces #12: Bright Eyes – [The People’s Key]

Welcome to Millennial Masterpieces, where I’ll look back at a great album released within the past 17 years and see what its legacy is. Twelfth in the series is the boldly diverse final release from indie wunderkind Conor Oberst under the name Bright EyesThe People’s Key.

Released: February 15, 2011

It’s unclear why Conor Oberst decided to end Bright Eyes; all subsequent releases he’s put out since 2011 have been decidedly in line with the project’s folk origins and could easily be slotted in the band’s catalogue. Ironically enough, it’s this album that actually merits an alternate moniker. The People’s Key is by far Bright Eyes’ least predictable (and least cohesive) record. It’s also their best.

As a matter of fact it plays more like a best-of collection than an LP– every song is crafted as a potential radio single, even if they barely flow. There is a loose theme concerning the nature of life and mortality, but it’s given little more than lip service. Not really too much of an issue, considering previous album Cassadaga was thematically sound but kind of a disaster. Ambitious concept ideas are cool and all, but great songwriting will always trump them. There’s plenty of that great songwriting on The People’s Key, even as Oberst jumps from one style to another.

Some of these styles are familiar. The mid-tempo strum of “Beginner’s Mind” could have been plucked from any other Bright Eyes record, as could “A Machine Spiritual”. The frenzied rush of “Jejune Stars” is aggressive at first, but later settles into a indie-pop bounce not at all alien to Oberst.

There’s also vintage Bright Eyes melodies reimagined in different variations. Oberst has always been known as a perpetually cynical sad sack– remember, this is the guy who calls his February 15th birth date “a day too late for love”– but on this record’s “Ladder Song” he sounds more genuine and heartfelt than ever. Dedicated to a friend who had recently passed away, the tune is largely based around a piano and a few swelling strings. It’s a subtle twist to the Bright Eyes formula that’s very much appreciated. Same goes for “One For You, One For Me”, which follows the existential footsteps of past Bright Eyes classic “Easy/Lucky/Free”, ambient and plaintive.

And then there’s the songs where the band really does go places they hadn’t been before. “Firewall” floats on a sinister country twang and strolls out on a militaristic drum beat. The gated chug of “Haile Selassie” and the alternative folk-grunge of “Triple Spiral” are entirely new outfits. Then there’s “Shell Games”.

When talking about Conor Oberst in the 2000s, three points inevitably arose in every conversation. There was the aforementioned Holden Caulfield-esque bitterness. There was the “child prodigy” baggage. There was also the inescapable “he can’t actually sing” point that while true, seems strangely antiquated. He’s still got the trademark quavering bleat, but it’s so much stronger here than the sickly croak he founded his career on. It’s so strong in fact, that he felt compelled to write an honest-to-goodness anthem. That would be “Shell Games”, which is both ridiculous and amazing. It sounds like a Journey song, and it works so much better than that sounds on paper. If the beefy guitar riff doesn’t convince you, the “everyone on the count of three!” call-and-response bridge will make you believe that this guy is a real rock frontman (note: he is, see Desaparecidos). Another fun fact: the first few lyrics in the song are descriptions of previous Bright Eyes album covers. (“circuitboard”= Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, “city streets”= I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, “shooting stars, swaying palm trees” = Cassadaga) What a poet, this Oberst fellow!

In case I haven’t made it clear enough: every one of the songs I’ve written about is stuffed with hooks and all deserve accolades. There’s absolutely no filler on this record; it’s hit after hit after hit. That extends to the B-sides, which include the unexpectedly wistful….A.I. ballad?… “Singularity”.

The supremely weird and twinkle-filled folksy lullaby sounds like a bunch of Ray Kurzweil theories put to music, with Oberst singing about limitless exploration and infinite consciousness. Though it’s not on the album proper, it’s another instant classic in the band’s canon.

The People’s Key may or may not have been Bright Eyes’ swansong, but its left-field melodic confidence was a welcome surprise that worked as a triumphant final act; a sardonic last laugh from the band that befuddled hipsters everywhere.

Top Three Tracks: “Shell Games“, “Ladder Song“, “Jejune Stars