In 1984 Spinal Tap went that extra mile by turning their amps up to 11. All these years later and Bright Eyes, returning from an extended hiatus, do something similar, upping the ante not quite to 11, but maybe to about 8.
For their latest offering The People’s Key, the trio, consisting of Conor Oberst, producer-musician Mike Mogis and pianist/trumpeter Nate Walcott, hold on to what’s important while adding a little extra adrenalin into the mix.
“I was really burnt out on that rootsy Americana shit, so I tried to steer clear of that,” Oberst recently told Billboard, and the album’s ten new tracks reflect this mindset completely. Gone are the lip-smacking whisper lyrics and folksie twang that defined their earlier work, in their place, knee tapping beats, rambling rock riffs and contributions from The Faint’s Clark Baechle, Cursive’s Matt Maginn and Autolux’s Carla Azar.
The gruff voice of a West-Texan cowboy welcomes you on this spiritual journey into the minds of Oberst and company, rambling and musing about conspiracy theories and UFO’s. Sounding like someone Louis Theroux would have a field day with, these verbal offerings spring up every now and again, complimenting tracks that boast a bit more bite than Bright Eyes’ previous work.
‘Shell Games’ is the track listeners will probably return to the most. It acts as a nice way in to The Peoples Key, with its rising piano refrain set against palm muted guitars and Oberst’s trademark trembling vocals. The band stay in this happy-go-lucky rock vein temporarily, with ‘Jejune Stars’, ‘Triple Spiral’ and ‘Haile Selassie’ all maintaining a similarly punchy pace, never completely rocking out but straying just far away enough from that ‘Americana shit’ that Oberst wanted so desperately to avoid.
Soon however, the trio move into darker territory, with lyrics depicting confusion and contemplation. “You’re gonna lose what you love the most, you’re not alone in anything, your not unique in dying” ponders Oberst in the macabre piano ballad ‘Ladder Song’. Meanwhile, ‘Approximate Sunlight’ sounds like a tribute to a doomed future, providing a nice tempo change and creating a sombre mood, proving that Oberst can still cut deep into your emotions.
Like a teen mood swing, the band easily snap out of all sullen curiosities and leave us on a high note. The Placebo-esqe album closer ‘One for You, One for Me’ encapsulates what the band seems to be trying to say quite well. They’ll give you the tender music you’ve come to love from Bright Eyes, that ones for us, but please, allow them the chance to offer something new and unexpected, that’s the least we can do for them.