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Bright Eyes Explore Mystic Territory In "The People's Key"

Sean Fitz-Gerald |
February 18, 2011 | 8:59 a.m. PST


It has been almost four years since Bright Eyes released a full-length studio album.  But the wait is finally over, and the trio’s latest work, "The People’s Key," has definitely been worthwhile.  

Bright Eyes, led by new folk icon Conor Oberst, take listeners to uncharted musical territory, as the band introduce lyric and sonic change.
The People's Key (Saddle Creek)
The People's Key (Saddle Creek)
Compared to previous albums like "Cassadaga" and "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn," this is a move away from their indie, emo and folk tendencies, as Oberst experiments with a newer, poppier, mystical sound.
The first song, “Firewall,” commences with Denny Brewer, lead singer from Refried Ice Cream, reading a Shamanic prelude that gives the album an initial sense of mysticism and intrigue.  Brewer says, ”There’s supposed to be eight other universes going counter-clockwise, and that’s called super universe.”  
What are his ramblings based on?  Who knows, but Brewer’s talk about reptilian Martians and loving everybody mesh with eerie sound effects to establish the album’s mood flawlessly.
Other songs like “Jejune Stars” and “A Machine Spiritual (The People’s Key)” also feature bits of Brewer’s monologue, making his spiritual enigma a recurring theme throughout.
"The People’s Key" offers a balanced blend of new, mystical influenced/sounding songs and more poppy sounding songs, like “Shell Games” and “Triple Spiral.”  The trio also successfully incorporate diverse instruments like the mellotron, the organ, synthesizers and various other mesmerizing sound effects into their songs.
Aside from exploring a new vocal direction with the record, Bright Eyes also highlight their tracks with instrumental pizzazz.  
“Ladder Song” starts with a gloomy piano intro that evolves into a flurry of passionate harmonies and melodies in which the emotion is almost palpable.
 Songs like “One for You, One for Me” and “Haile Selassie” employ some of the electro-folk, synth sounds that avid listeners might recognize and appreciate, while the synth in “Beginner’s Mind” sounds like something out of a Disney princess movie.
The abuse of sound effects as background flare and instrumental/vocal embellishment might come off as too much.
Throughout the album it sounds as if Oberst is singing underwater or into a tin can, creating a strange echo-ey effect on his voice, which works well with the moods of songs like “Firewall” and “Haile Selassie.” But in others, like “Approximate Sunlight,” it comes off as distasteful and overdone.
However, it is not Oberst’s voice that carries the attention of the listener; it is his new lyrical style and the album’s effect as a whole. “I loved you Triple Spiral—father, son and ghost / But you left me in my darkest hour when I needed you,” sings Oberst in “Triple Spiral.” Many songs like that sound more on the poppy side, but still have a spiritual themes floating around the lyrics.
 And, just as the album began with Brewer’s spiritual oration, the album comes to a close with his utterances of “mercy.”
"The People’s Key" is a skillfully put together album in which Bright Eyes offer their audience new musical direction. Despite some questionable synth parts and abusive sound effects, the album is an absorbing trip that will not disappoint, highlighted by the trio’s gripping instrumentals and Oberst’s spiritual poetics.
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