Every proper Bright Eyes album opens with a recording of a voice or voices. On Letting Off the Happiness, it’s a crowd of rowdy schoolkids; on Fevers and Mirrors, a child reading a story; on Lifted, the sound of Bright Eyes principal Conor Oberst and his bandmates on tour. In some way, each of these recordings serves as a sort of table of contents, pointing towards the dominant themes of the album that it introduces. The People’s Key, the seventh and allegedly final Bright Eyes album, is no different. It opens with the voice of Refried Icecream guitarist Denny Brewer, babbling excitedly about Sumerian mythology, celestial beings and cosmic prophecies. Sure enough, The People’s Key falls in line with much of Oberst’s recent work, trading heavily in oblique spiritual imagery. However, unlike on Cassadaga, the mysticism feels more purposeful here, serving as a vector by which Oberst, now 30, glances back at his life and work.
Introspection is nothing new for Oberst, though to acknowledge as much is to downplay how far he’s come as a songwriter during the last 19 years. While early Bright Eyes albums were as self-absorbed and overwrought as one might expect from a supposed “child prodigy”, I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning found the young songwriter finally growing into those Dylan comparisons, penning a classic of personal politics that stands as his high water mark. Early into The People’s Key,Oberst acknowledges both how far he’s come and how little he’s changed, singing “Death-obsessed like a teenager / Sold my tortured youth, pissed in vinegar / I’m still angry with no reason to be” over the soaring Springsteen-meets-new-wave sonics of “Shell Games”.
Sure enough, Oberst still has plenty of bile left to go around, though on The People’s Key, he seems more obsessed with life than death. On “Beginner’s Mind”, for example, he pines for the naïveté of youth, begging, “Stay awhile my inner child / I’d like to learn your tricks.” “Jejune Stars” brims with bright, Cars-esque keys, as Oberst wonders, “If it’s true what we’re made of / Why do I hide from the rain?” “Triple Spiral” is perhaps most telling, its conclusion standing in stark contrast to Oberst’s most morbid songs (in particular, the suicidal “No Lies, Just Love”). After considering various conceptions of time (one oddly prophetic bit details the ransacking of a museum, the theft of “a casket made of 14-carrot gold” and a looter who shouts, “In with the new, out with the old”), Oberst ultimately decides to focus on his own mortality, singing, “I heard your strange commotion / And wished I could go home / To live a little longer / A full Indian summer / Long enough to carve you into stone.”
Speaking of mortality, Oberst does delve into darker subject matter on The People’s Key, though his tone here is markedly different. “Approximate Sunlight” revisits the Delillo-esque, postmodern despair of Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, even injecting a bit of “white noise” into the song’s midsection. Still, Oberst is plenty self-aware this time around, sighing, “We used to dream of time machines / Now it’s been said we’re post-everything.” “Ladder Song”, the closest The People’s Key gets to the spare, confessional style of songwriting that Oberst helped popularize, finds our protagonist alone at the piano, that once familiar warble in his voice finally audible. Even so, the song’s central conceit is unexpectedly reassuring: “You’re not alone in anything / You’re not unique in dying.”
While there’s little doubt that The People’s Key is the product of an older, wiser Bright Eyes, all of this maturity does come at a price. Musically speaking, The People’s Key is not nearly as adventurous as early Bright Eyes albums and far less striking than Oberst’s most stripped-down work. The end result is a collection of songs that feel solid if nondescript, that drift into the inoffensive dad-rock palette favored by the likes of late-period Wilco. While a handful of the tracks here come bearing meaty hooks (“Shell Games”, “Jejune Stars” and “Triple Spiral” chief among them), none of these 10 songs can really be called catchy. In that sense, The People’s Key has more in common with Oberst’s recent work with the Mystic Valley Band than it does with previous Bright Eyes albums — it’s a fairly uniform rock album with few obvious standouts.
“It does feel like it needs to stop at some point,” Oberst said of Bright Eyes back in 2009. “I’d like to clean it up, lock the door, say goodbye.” Taken in that light, The People’s Key seems to accomplish its goal by offering up a fairly tidy conclusion to a band that was anything but. Even the album closer here — usually a sprawling, grandiose statement — is remarkably subdued. “One for You, One for Me” finds Oberst counting off dualities (“One for the breadlines / One for the billionaires”) over a steadily rolling beat, palm-muted guitar and squelchy analog synths. By the song’s end, our protagonist decides that when it comes to himself, there’s no binary to speak of, singing, “You and me, you and me / That is an awful lie/It’s I and I.” It’s funny: after all that growth, Conor Oberst chooses to end his Bright Eyes project right back where it all began — with an unapologetic declaration of solipsism.