BRIGHT EYES - The Peoples Key
“The People’s Key,” the seventh album from Conor Oberst in his Bright Eyes guise, opens with a four-minute stream-of-(un)conscience lecture on evolutionary positive vs. negative forces and the role of reptilian star-creatures in the counterclockwise super-universe provided by Denny Brewer, singer for El Paso, Texas, band Refried Ice Cream, that is only slightly less coherent than it sounds. Throw away the rustic folk and put on your 3-D glasses.
Oberst, in his best post-indie rock Dylan mode, is after something big here as he ruminates like a psychedelic encyclopedia salesman. Birth, death, dreams, history, time, sea, sky, mantras, hallucinations, spinning wheels and disappearing ladders are all on the menu, with a side order of chemical stimulants (I’m guessing).
It’s a place where former Ethiopian emperor/Rastafarian messiah Haile Selassie (who gets his own song) has equal billing with Jesus and the Buddha. In fact, there’s a good deal of “I and I” and “one love”-type Rasta spiritualism on “The People’s Key.” Still, about the closest Oberst and company come to reggae (besides what they might have been smoking) are the propulsive yet staggered rhythms and keyboard squirts of “One for You, One for Me,” a straightforward righteous vs. ruling class anthem that Peter Gabriel might want to swipe for his next all-covers album (not that I’m encouraging one).
The opening track, “Firewall,” is a slowly churning kaleidoscope with lyrics like “I saw a hologram at the theme park.” “Jejune Stars” has a relatively cheery sounding Oberst during his version of karmic transformation a la the Star Baby from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” For “Approximate Sunlight,” Oberst hops into a “post everything” time machine and fits together a dub-bass-and-processed-vocals jigsaw puzzle like H.G. Wells with a hookah pipe. “A Machine Spiral” is alternative dimension performance art that links black-faced minstrel shows and Eva Braun. “Beginner’s Mind” starts slowly, then kicks into a psychedelic beat-poem dialogue between Oberst and his “inner child,” an ode to innocence betrayed that conjures the comforting image of “A snuff film on a Jumbotron” (calling Eli Roth, we may have just found a plot outline for “Hostel 3”).
Oberst’s confessional, quavering vocals are backed with equal amounts thumpy acoustic rock, keyboard noodling, stark piano and angular guitar in a soupy interstellar bouillabaisse. Lyrically dense (big surprise), “The People’s Key” is what Pink Floyd might’ve sounded like if Syd Barrett had been born in Omaha and not become a loon. One thing’s for certain: these Bright Eyes have been staring directly at the sun, and it’s pretty cosmic in there.