Bright Eyes | The People’s Key (Saddle Creek)

You get a sense throughout this album that these are songs transcribed from glyphs on the walls of recently excavated pyramids, with attendant tricks and sonic mysteries attached.

 

 

At this stage in his career, what does it even mean for Conor Oberst to make music as Bright Eyes? Perhaps he’s resurrected the name so that he can authoritatively pull the plug. But whatever the obscure rationale behind the new Bright Eyes disc, it bears little resemblance to the country-rock urban troubadour persona he adopted on I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning or his two Mystic Valley Band records, or the nervous, brashly emo indie folk of his earliest years. Instead, the closest ancestor is the oft-overlooked electronic scrunch of Digital Ash In A Digital Urn. The People’s Key uses a slightly more live-band take on that album’s synthetic rock as a jumping off point. It stretches out the song structures and paints the whole thing with another coat of the semi-paranoid, conspiracy theorist-friendly mysticism that’s permeated his work over the last five years.

As he winds lyrical guitar lines around a cavernous, metronomic rhythm in “Approximate Sunlight,” Oberst sings an apt tagline for the record: “Used to dream of time machines / now it’s been said we’re post-everything.” You get a sense throughout this album that these are songs transcribed from glyphs on the walls of recently excavated pyramids, with attendant tricks and sonic mysteries attached. Creepy Heaven’s Gate style voiceovers open and close the record, as well as appearing between a number of songs. "Firewall" eventually emerges from several minutes’ worth of one such interlude as meandering background sounds before warily giving way to firing squad drums, drawn out orchestral swells, and intricately weaving slide guitar. It’s a very Cassadaga trick, but less supernatural and more preoccupied with postmodern angst and an impending apocalypse. And the Lion of Judah.

Better take a break and get a comparative religion degree. Done? Good. Now dive in to “Haile Selassie,” a catchy as hell spiritual buffet (its lyrics chock full of allusions to Zion, Rastafarianism, and Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity) full of triumphant Moog squelches and  phased guitar lines. “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key)” takes an addictive start-stop acoustic guitar figure and swaying tempo and melds them to puzzling Hitler references (which resurface in loping grand finale “One For You, One For Me”). The album too often seems to exist as an arcane code to be cracked, which can be fun if you’re in the mood, but infuriating if you’re not—or if your decoder ring never showed up in the post.

For all this nebulousness, these aren’t tuneless songs, and there are various moments of clarity. Lead single “Shell Games” proves that Oberst is still ready, willing, and able to write a lodge-in-your-head pop song, albeit it one loaded with ethereal synth leads and lyrics about endless confusion and Sisyphean struggle. It builds to a satisfying climax of Mellotron and a choral shout that culminates in the head-scratching sputter of an engine running out of gas. “Triple Spiral” sets an examination of (lack of) faith to a memorably compact, distorted alt-rock crunch, coiling keyboard figures, and touches of good old-fashioned indie jangle. “Jejune Stars” is the most standard track on offer, a wiry guitar led number punctuated by exuberant yelps about “dying young at heart.”

Even more so than its intricate arrangements and buried, subverted hooks, the most inescapable aspect of The People’s Key is the prevalence of inscrutable, rambling prophet imagery. While it all only occasionally coalesces into moments of insight, he’s rarely sounded this certain of himself, which lends the record its fitful intrigue. These are the quizzical, made-his-peace final words of a man ready to begin a new phase of life, or just as likely, to step onto an approaching spacecraft and happily leave this world behind. It’s not the pinnacle of Oberst’s discography, but it’s a notable, consistently intriguing way to shuffle off this incarnation. C+ | Mike Rengel

RIYL: One of those $5 bin books on “Secrets of the Pyramids Revealed!” set to electro-folk rock; the farewell tapes of a suicide cult

 

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