Review Summary: Does Oberst, in his outward turn to cosmic ideas, trade in or abandon what we so loved about him?
The People’s Key
The People’s Key is a turn outwards, no doubt- and for singer songwriter Conor Oberst, It’s a risky business. Oberst has always been introspective. It’s his claim to fame, right? Even when he was a youngster (13 years old) on the track “You Should be in Sweden” off of Waters, his first recording, you can see that he has the foundation, already, of this introspective self examination. In his highpitched sort of endearing warble he sings, “I saw you at the subway the other day You were drinking hot chocolate/ I thought about asking you for a sip /But on second thought I didn't want to burn my tongue”. Compare that line to Lua’s “Got a flask inside my pocket/we can share it on the train/If you promise to stay conscious/I’ll try and do the same” and you realize how deep this kind of introspective song writing lives within him, this lyricism littered with personal references. He knows himself, and that, no doubt, has suited him well.
But that’s not to say that he hasn’t turned outwards before. He has, and he’s done it well. In 2007’s Cassadaga, a record littered with country twang and interesting instrumental arrangements, doesn’t snap what Bright Eyes was in half, but sort of backs off a little, and boats some of Oberst’s most balanced moments. It’s a kind of a contrast to I’m Wide Awake And It’s Morning, a record that puts his lyricism and shaky warble at the forefront. Morning capitalized on his impassioned, shaky voiced delivery, and not that there’s anything wrong with his shaky voiced angst. Some of my favourite Bright Eyes moments come from that record, that kind of songwriting, but I admit, it can seem a bit much, a bit pretentious, a bit juvenile. But many, including me, love that about Bright Eyes, or can look past those inherent thoughts. Ultimately, Oberst does what he does it well, as I’ve said before.
To some, the People’s Key was a disappointment, and I can see why. Denny, the guy who talks in between songs and who does the introduction to the album, spits seemingly random rants on the etymology of pomegranates, the center of the universe, Hitler, and other topics that seem random, misplaced and inherently annoying. It doesn’t really help that he mispronounces things and talks sometimes for two minutes at a time. But, to be fair, this whole introduction thing has been done before in Bright Eyes records. In fact, it’s been done in most of them: Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, starts with a couple driving somewhere in a car. Fevers in Mirrors starts with a little kid reading about Margo moving away, and Cassadaga starts with a lady talking about, well, Cassadaga. It’s not new, and I don’t even know if I’d call it a gimmick. For certain, it’s not enough to dismiss the record as inherently annoying or not adequate to what they’ve done before.
I’ve made it clear that the record is a turn outwards, a turn away from the introspective nature of his body of work. However, in this body of work, Oberst proves that he can paint pictures with words, paint pictures of the abstract, almost cosmic that are prevalent in the entire record . In the sluggish, sort of meltingstarsounding Firewall, he sings “I saw a hologram at the theme park/She looked as real as me through the white fog/Then she melted down to her ankles/Turned into a million-watt candle”. This sort of songwriting may not be better than what he’s done before, but proves that he doesn’t need to bank on angst in order to show off his skills. In Firewall, he sings “Life's a wash, a pastoral school play/China shops and cold ivory towers”. He’s going into new territories with his song writing, and although he takes a purely cosmic approach to it, he proves that he can write songs that retain what we love of him (or simultaneously hate about him). In the synthetic, faced paced Shell Games, we hear layers we’ve never sonically heard in Bright Eyes: we hear synths over a jangling piano, in a sort of cosmic romp- and in Jejune Stars, he keeps the pace going, singing “Every new day is a gift, it's a song of redemption”, and asking the question “Why do I hide from the rain?” In this outwardness, he still manages to pull some of that introspective lyricism into his songwriting, singing “I go umbrella under my arm into the green of the radar/How did it get so dark in the day?/It's just so bizarre, is it true what we're made of?/Why do I hide from the rain?”
I guess you could argue that the whole thing is a question. Oberst sings of licking the “solar plexus of an LA shaman,” in Approximate Sunlight, and he sings of “hitchhiking back to Zion” in Haile Selassie- but it’s obvious he’s never done this things before. When he sings of sharing a flask on a train, it’s tangible in that it could be autobiographical- and in the the light of all of it, the whole record could seem fake, and detached. And I guess that’s how you can think about it. But in doing that, you’re disregarding some of the great music this record boasts, and sort of the musical journey it is, ending with “One For You, One For Me,” a song that sort of brings the whole abstract nature of the record home. “One for the righteous, one for the ruling class/One for the tyrant, one for the slaughtered lamb/One for the struggle, one for the lasting peace/One for you, and one for me.” He’s admitting that he’s writing about things he doesn’t understand, writing about the cosmos through a peephole, a acidwashed, layered looking glass.
But here’s the problem. Ladder Song is, in my opinion, the best song on the entire album. A slow, emotional, and altogether beautiful ballad played entirely on the piano (and a siren in the background) devoid of the cosmic musical qualities of the album we had seen up until that point. “No one knows where the ladder goes/You're gonna lose what you love the most/You're not alone in anything/You're not unique in dying,” he sings. And it’s so damn good because it’s so damn honest, so good because he’s doing what he does best. And perhaps the album would be better without it, because at this point you realize that he’s doing what he does best and hasn’t for the rest of the album. It’s not that he wasn’t good, it’s not that he wasn’t painting cool pictures with words, it’s just that he wasn’t in his prime. Oberst knows himself. He knows how to write about himself, and he knows how to make music about himself, and when he does, he does it well. And while I enjoyed the People’s Key, I come back to the Ladder Song. Because it’s honest. And it’s not that the rest of the record is a lie, it’s just a lesser honesty. It's almost like he's stiffling himself, stiffling his inner 13 year old singing in an angsty warble of pretty girls and hot chocolate.