Monday, May 30, 2011

Conor Oberst out of Key on latest from Bright Eyes

Something's not quite right with Conor Oberst.

The point man behind Bright Eyes established himself as a legend in the indie scene when he self released his debut album at the age of 14 and piloted his own record label from the ground up.

Since then Oberst has watched his profile steadily rise, peaking with arguably his greatest work with 2005's I'm Wide Awake It's Morning. After nearly two decades, there is talk that the band's latest release, The People's Key, may be it's last.

If that's so, it's a real shame. The People's Key is far from being a good album.

 Bright Eyes has historically been known for Oberst's folksy, singer/songwriter, roots style approach. The new LP abandons that in favor of a more alternative vein, emphasizing the sound of the band as a whole. In the process he's managed to rip out everything that made Bright Eyes what it is.

It's risky business for an artist to dramatically alter their musical makeup. Radiohead showed it could work by whitewashing their Brit-rock roots on Kid A. More recently, Deerhunter's Halcyon Digest demonstrated how to mold a simpler, pop-based song structure while still keeping the core elements of their sound intact.

The People's Key, on the other hand, quite simply lacks the power, emotion, and immediacy heard in the band's prior works  The first thing that jumps out is the lack of distinctive melodies; most songs are carried along by the same recycled bouncy beat, supplemented by keyboards.

The lead single, "Shell Games," is the catchiest tune on disc, making it a sure highlight. "Triple Spiral" is alright too, I suppose.

Periodically throughout the disc you'll hear from a narrator who sounds like a slightly more intelligent version of Randy from My Name is Earl. He has some interesting things to say, but suffers from being too wordy and takes too long to get to his point.

And that's perhaps the problem with the lyrics on this album in general. As always, Mr. Oberst has some great words to share, but you have to dig for it. Whereas on earlier material he's made a point of setting a scene or creating a mood much more immediately.

Compare what you get to here to the soul baring confession of "First Day of My Life," or the sense of urgency on "At the Bottom of Everything," both from I'm Wide Awake It's Morning.

For that matter, take a glimpse at the opening of "Four Winds," the lead single from 2007's Cassadaga:

"Your class, your caste, your country, sect, your name or your tribe
There is people always dying trying to keep them alive."

A knockout political salvo in just two lines. And catchy as hell too.

If there is one song that comes close to recapturing Oberst's glory it is "Ladder Song," near the album's close. The lonely piano and haunted vocal immediately evoke a feeling of desolation and loss, and stands out above most everything else on the disc.

The People's Key is certainly listenable and not a bad effort per se, but there isn't much redeeming about it. It's not about the shift in sound for me. Bright Eyes is a band perfectly capable of pulling off the alternative vibe; they just didn't nail it here.

Next time I'll take catchier melodies and ACTUALLY showing a sense of emotion, please and thank you.

Score: 65/100

No comments: