Conor Oberst isn’t afraid of transformation. The Omaha warbler is full of musical costume changes, both in terms of his rotating projects (Mystic Valley Band, Monsters of Folk, his solo work) and his aesthetic direction. The People’s Key, the seventh studio album from his band Bright Eyes, is a departure from the organic folk of previous works. It’s an adventurous piece of indie rock and mature collection of almost-pop songs that develop a variety of spiritual themes. Tied together (loosely) by the existential ramblings of Refried Ice Cream’s Denny Brewer, The People’s Key presents us with a band that can still surprise.
While the contemplative “Ladder Song” fits well in the acoustic Oberst mold, most of the album’s ten tracks are lively rock numbers—more Digital Ash In a Digital Urn than Cassadaga. Synths, electric guitars, and powerful drumming contribute to the positive energy that sets this record apart from the others. Tracks like “Triple Spiral” and single “Jejune Stars” are almost danceable, littered with as many religious references as the Rastafarian-influenced “Haile Selassie” or synth-heavy closer “One for You, One for Me”. Though its subject matter is as weighty as those of previous Bright Eyes albums, The People’s Key maintains a vivacity absent from Oberst’s other emotional offerings.
The People’s Key feels like another new direction for the accomplished indie outfit rather than the end of an era. If this work really is the last from Mr. Oberst’s main gig (as he hinted in June 2009’s Rolling Stone), it is unlike anything that Bright Eyes has produced before. Nonetheless, this is one transformation that suits them extraordinarily well.