The People's Key By Bright Eyes
The following personal anecdote should suffice to introduce my review of former child prodigy Conor Oberst's final album under the Bright Eyes moniker, The People's Key: while a sophomore in college, and still under the impression that there were such a thing as "bad" or "good" bands and artists, whose music I would either always or never like, a friend told me that the great thing about Oberst's music was that every album sounded like "a different band," in response to which I could not help but thinking: "but that's his problem." However, because his albums usually find Oberst collaborating with a large group of artists representing radically different genres—in this case: post-hardcore (Cursive), dream-pop (Now It's Overhead), dance-punk (The Faint) and indie-electronic (The Berg Sans Nipple)—his apparent proclivity towards fad-dependent dilettantism might actually be the result of an intentional abnegation of authorial control: perhaps Oberst would rather let his collaborators run wild creatively than confine them to strict guidelines, even at the cost of producing a body of work far too eclectic for its own good.
Opener "Firewall" begins with a spooky, two-minute "Illuminati are lizard people"-rant performed by [some guy whom neither anyone on Internet nor I can name at this juncture] and set to a foreboding synth score; eventually a spare guitar line—which the sideman seems to have trouble playing—is introduced, as well as some highly compressed and poorly mixed vocals: these technical fluffs tend to distract, and the song is further hampered by a bored melody and there not being a whole lot it apart from some obviously over-considered cutesy drum programming and flirtations with faux-IDM that should impress those to whom they appear as revolutionary innovations. "Shell Games" is a bit more straightforward: Oberst's wordy lyric strongly and square synths strongly recalling Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band (respectively); he seems to excel more at straightforward homage-dabbling than avant-garde-diddling. Bright Eyes' penchant for time-honored chord progressions cripples him slightly. It could be argued that recycled ideas are an intrinsic part of pop music as it is a folk art, but it becomes something of a problem when a given track finds Oberst playing an unoriginal song with unoriginal lyrics in an unoriginal style, as it is not clear what his "contribution" was: a perfect example of this is "Beginner's Mind," which contains the lyric "a snuff film on a jumbo-tron for all the world to see" which is like totally heavy man.
"Approximate Sunlight" features the same tinny, thin-sounding vocal processing of the previous three tracks—this is legitimately unpleasant sounding; I can't imagine what producer Mike Mogis was thinking—contains one of Oberst's most vaguely poetic-sounding lyrics and super-emotional voice-cracking, and finds the artist doing his best to approximate a slithery, serpentine trip-hop soundscape. "Haile Selassie" features lines like "holding our tears while we flipped the album" and a borderline math-rock-y backing instrumentation which gets boring after a few bars. " With its computerized, clipped acoustic guitars, synth-strings and densely layered vocals, "A Machine Spiritual (In the People's Key)" is a slightly more successful mish-mash of experimental-seeming styles whose title contains a post-positional adjective. "Triple Spiral" is an explosively loud rock song returning to the Springsteenian over-the-top-ism of "Shell Games" which, along with that track, is one of the album's strongest tracks. "Ladder Song" features even more sexy, female-identified poetry and something recorded candidly with a walkman at a child's piano lesson, and I can't decide which genre "One for You, One for Me" falls under, but it's one of the album's better tracks so I'll leave it alone.
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