You’ve Got A Soul, Use It: A Review of “The People’s Key” from Bright Eyes

Something big and heavy has been happening to Conor Oberst lately. I’m not sure what that something (or somethings) may be, but the transformation is written all over his latest record, The People’s Key, and I think it’s one of the most interesting stories of the year.

As the eighth full-lenght studio effort recorded under the soon to be retired Bright Eyes moniker (meaning, primarily, Oberst, soundscape wizard Mike Mogis, and synth specialist Nathaniel Walcott), The People’s Key finds the one-time Nebraskan wunderkind about as far away from his solipsistic genesis story as one can imagine; that is to say, where Oberst once seemed content to craft songs about some of the smallest, most nuanced aspects of his life and times (subway rides to Brooklyn, barroom poesy, reading a newspaper in a coffee shop while nursing a hangover), The People’s Key concerns itself only with THE BIG STUFF. Humanity’s origins. Reincarnation. Time-as-illusion. Rastafari. Father, son, and ghost. The thematic rundown here reads like an ambitious merger of Edward Cayce, Thich Nhat Hanh, Carl Sagan, and the Apostle Paul—a very ambitious record that listens like a cyclical meditation on a whole host of sweeping human conflicts and contradictions at once both modern and ageless. Also, it may be one of my favorite Oberst efforts to date.

Early examples of Oberst’s obsession with all things Conor are too numerous to recount here in their entirety. But consider, for instance, this chain of lyrics from “Hit The Switch,” a rollicking—if not dour—reflection on self destruction and twenty-something, post-modern existentialist angst on 2005’s Digital Ash In A Digital Urn:

I’m staring out into that vacuum again
From the back porch of my mind
The only thing that’s alive, I’m all there is
And I start attacking my vodka
Stab the ice with my straw
My eyes have turned red as stoplights
You seem ready to walk
You know I’ll call you eventually
When I wanna talk, ’til then you’re invisible

Cause there’s this switch that gets hit
And it all stops making sense
And in the middle of drinks
Maybe the fifth or the sixth
I’m completely alone at a table of friends
I feel nothing for them
I feel nothing, nothing.

To be sure, Oberst’s journey away from this sort of navelward songwriting (which, by the way, seemed so vital and “yeah man!” real when I was 23…we’ll see how it holds up) has been a slow train coming. For instance, Bright Eyes’ 2007 release Cassadaga not only took its title from a 116-year-old spiritualist camp in central Florida, but also included several tracks that hinted at a new Oberst in the making; a young man in perpetual search of broader understandings and peace that can’t be found at the bottom of a vodka bottle. Even Cassadaga’s album art speaks to this transformation, containing as it does myriad phrases and meditations that can only be seen with a “spectral decoder” included inside the record’s jacket. Consider:

  • “Dog faced apologists pleasing themselves on the burning sand”
  • “These myths are sacred and profane!”
  • “Rocks beneath the water” (which is what “Cassadaga” means in the Seneca language)
  • “Citrus slaves throwing dice in the dirt, amusement”
  • “Swollen saints bathing in a backwards river under a sliver of a moon”
  • “Mighty Saturn enters your eighth house”

Follow this with Oberst’s 2008 self-titled solo release, which opens with “Cape Canaveral,” a simple, bittersweet acoustic number that begins:

Oh, oh, oh brother totem pole
I saw your legends lined up
And I never felt more natural
Apart, I just came apart

Please, please, please sister Socrates
You always answer with a question
Show some kindness to a petty thief
Forgive, you did forgive

What sets The People’s Key apart from the rest—and thus marks Conor’s most bold step yet toward the purely spiritual—is that Oberst doesn’t waste a single track on anything trifling or desultory. Here there is no “First Day of My Life” or “Lua” or “We Are Nowhere And It’s Now” (all excellent, by the way). Exhibit A: The album’s opening track, “Firewall”, begins with a spoken-word sermon of sorts from Randy Brewer, a Texas musician Oberst met on the road who appears sporadically throughout the record.

“If there is no such thing as time, you’re already there and you’re controlling the cycle,” proclaims Brewer over some awesome, eerie ambients. “You say, ‘Man, look what we found here Einstein,’ or whoever you’re talkin’ to. Tesla. Whoever you’re talkin’ to. Problems of the future can be solved by mankind because you create ’em.”

If there is a single, unifying through-line theme to be found amidst the caterwaul of spiritual confusion and understanding on The People’s Key, it can perhaps be found in this opening monologue; namely, that Oberst is trying his damnedest to reconcile his immediate, superficial, self-absorbed self (i.e. the one we all struggle against) with the more pervasive eternal truth’s that seem perpetually just beyond humanity’s grasp.

In the second track, “Shell Games,” Oberset proclaims:

If I could change my mind, change the paradigm
Prepare myself for another life
Forgive myself for the many times
I was cruel to something helpless and weak

But here it come, that heavy love
I’m never going to move it alone
Here it come, that heavy love
Tag it on a tenement wall
Here it come, that heavy love
Someone got to share in the load
Here it come, that heavy love
I’m never going to move it alone

I was dressed in white, touched by something pure
Death obsessed like a teenager
Sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar
I’m still angry with no reason to be

Perfectly, it doesn’t stop for all 10 tracks; abstractions and incantations; lyrical minimalisms and epic reaches; aliens and pharaohs . On one of the record’s greatest tracks, “Haile Selassie” (right?!), Oberst brings the listener into some pastiche fever dream of eventual redemption and mind-clearing Knowledge that we are all single drops in the same infinitely expansive ocean, all waiting for that moment when the savior (literal? metaphoric?) arrives:

What if this leads to ruin?
You got a soul, use it
All this despair forgiven
Rolling away on the Wheel of Sevens
Sings like the Queen of Sheba
Voice through a Blonde Speaker
One dropping bubble and Leslie
Calling me home like Haile Selassie

Pilgrim beside the fire
It’s been a long winter
We got a lot in common
Cover our heads as they split the atom
All of our days are numbered
I’ll take in some comfort in knowing the wave has crested
Knowing I don’t have to be an exception
Children they fill the bleachers
One is the next Caesar
Keep all their minds collected
Until he comes
Until he comes

Want just one more? Near the end of the record comes “Ladder Song,” a tune Oberst hammered out on the piano in tribute to and reflection of a close friend who recently committed suicide in Omaha. Its opening stanza:

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
Feel estranged every now and then
Fall asleep reading science fiction
I wanna fly in your silver ship
Let Jesus hang and Buddha sit

I’ll be honest, I was not an immediate fan of this album. Upon a first (even second, or third) listen, The People’s Key has an oddly discordant soundscape that utilizes some shrill and cutting synths as well as uncharacteristically drubbing (and equally bad-ass-tight) guitar riffs. Those who might be looking for Oberst’s younger proclivities for Americana and Alt. Country may be disappointed. When combined with the severity—nay, the uncomfortably revelatory nature of the lyrics, The People’s Key takes some getting used to. But should you surrender—and make no mistake, there is a degree of surrender required for maximum enjoyment here, as with anything of significant spiritual value—you are going to rejoice in not only one of the greatest songwriters of our generation, but also a man who seems to have very significantly taken to heart the axiom of the lyrical predecessor to whom he has so often been compared: he’s very (very) busy being born, and not too fond of dying.

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2 responses to “You’ve Got A Soul, Use It: A Review of “The People’s Key” from Bright Eyes

  1. Nice article! I love this album! I agree with a lot of your points, it took some getting used to but now it is one of my favorites!

  2. Pingback: Let Us Now Praise…Conor Oberst and Dawes | Twenty Pounds Of Headlines...

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