Let the poets cry themselves to sleep,
And all their tearful words could turn back into steam
The moment always happens. The moment when you can tell what a person/band is going to be or even what they are supposed to be. We always rememember these moments: the moment we realized what our favorite album of all-time was, the moments when we saw something great happening in sports, the moments when we feel so connected with something or someone musically or personally they can almost change our very lives. What is funny is when this thing we had this "moment" with realizes its full potential the only thing it really does is live up to our inflated expectations. Our expectations our for moments and memories and anything less is classified as mediocrity. Maybe it is a flaw of our human nature or maybe it is us just living our lives to the very fullest and expecting the best from ourselves. But what we do know is that these moments often define us and often come based off of our inflated expectations.
Conor Oberst also had a moment. It was the beginning of 2005 Bright Eyes had just released "I'm Wide Awake Its Morning" and "Digital Ash In A Digital Urn" right after he released "Lifted..." in 2002. I knew at this moment that Bright Eyes was supposed to be the greatest songwriter of all time. It might sound like a bit of hyperbole but not since Bob Dylan had we seen a songwriter so in touch with the moods of the individual and the political climate and the ramifications of this particular climate. With these three albums Conor Oberst was not only writing our autobiographies (his songs could perfectly describe what was going on in our lives) and history books (he understood the harsh reality and ramifications of every political action better than any twenty-first century artist, at least in his genre). In songs like "Landlocked Blues", "Road To Joy", "Let's Not S--- Ourselves", "We Are Nowhere and Its Now", and "Easy/Lucky/Free" he was even able to combine the chapter book style (define our lives) and the history book aspect (political) unlike any artist I have seen. The assumption was that Oberst was just going to grow as a songwriter and his songs would just become better and even more important. Oberst was supposed to be the greatest songwriter of all-time.
But after the release of the two albums in early 2005 something happened to completely change the direction of Oberst's songwriting. Oberst might have gotten tired of being compared to legends like Bob Dylan. Oberst might have gotten tired of writing songs that were so damn personal. Or Conor might just have lost the touch he had. Oberst went on to make "Cassadanga" and two solo albums (to be fair "Cassadanga" and his self titled album are really good) where he seemed more focused on ancient history and philosophy than being the greatest chapter book and history book songwriter of his generation. Oberst had completely changed his songwriting style but his fans were hoping that he would return to his old roots for his last Bright Eyes record "The People's Key"
When you hear the spoken word introduction to "Firewall" you realize that Conor Oberst has essentially gone from what seemed like a perfect understanding of individual and political culture in 2005 to someone who is almost completely out of touch with his culture in 2011. This record has been described as a "sci-fi emo" record and all that means is the lyrical content on here is basically weird and irrelevant. Oberst seems to search through every religious philosophy and persona on this album and it makes the album more purposeless than original. Oberst lyrics might come from a disgust that he had with his previous style of songwriting but this scientific rebellion he is having is both senseless, boring, and more hurtful than anything purposeless. The problem with Oberst's rebellion against his old style of songwriting is that it is a rebellion against him realizing his potential of potentially being the greatest songwriter ever and with ever reference to some stupid third world philosophy he just further digs his own grave of mediocrity.
The instrumentation on "The People's Key" does not allow us to have the same profound connection that we had with Bright Eyes on their previous albums. The acoustic and folky feels of "Lifted" and "I'm Wide Awake" allowed listeners to not only think that Oberst was describing their life but that they could become part of his life and also that he understood political culture unlike any songwriter that had come before him outside of maybe Bob Dylan. The instrumentation on these albums was genuine yet complicated and allowed listeners to connect in a unique way which made me believe that Oberst was supposed to be one of the all time greats. When Oberst realized his electronic influences on "Digital Ash" he always made sure his vocals perfectly matched the instrumentation, we were still allowed to connect with the music, and that he still produces some pretty damn good songs. On "The People's Key" it is almost like Oberst is making music so that a connection is impossible. "Jejune Stars" seems over aggressive, "Approximated Sunlight" seems to relaxed and out of place, "Ladder Song" sounds like a Christian radio song, and even the song with the most accessible lyrics on the album "One For You, One For Me" is lacking something. This albums sound recognizes the electronic influences of "Digital Ash" throws them in the garbage and creates a sound that is borderline inaccessible to the average listener and almost criminal to the people that realize the potential that Oberst is wasting on these recordings.
With all of this being said I guess "The People's Key" could be considered a good album as it does have a few good songs. By another artists standards this might even be considered an excellent release but for me personally this is just a sad ending to what could have been so much more. Bright Eyes could have been the greatest songwriter of all time but instead he just decided to settle for "finding himself" and "finding happiness". On a human level this is respectable if not commendable but on a musical level it is just depressing. I guess his failures always sounded better.