Sunday, February 20, 2011

Bright Eyes :: The People's Key

Bright Eyes :: The People's Key ~ Saddle-Creek ~ Omaha, NE ~ February 15th 2011

one inbred, transdimensional, reptilian alien baby; one lion of Judah with a Bright Eyes hair cut; one Hitler mustache with dread locks; one ladder to somewhere; and one for Conor Oberst.

The rumors about The People’s Key being Bright Eyes’ last album came from a certain magazine’s interview that has since disappeared from the web. Songwriter Conor Oberst said, “It does feel like it needs to stop at some point. I'd like to clean it up, lock the door, say goodbye.” By no means did he mean that he was going to hang up his guitar for good. When talking about Oberst, the president of Saddle Creek Records, Robb Nasel, told a local Omaha paper, “I think he feels like Bright Eyes has a certain association, for better or worse. I think he's trying to distance himself a little bit from what that means to people.” What that meaning is could be anything. It could mean being a sad singer or being branded with the blasphemous, close-minded “e” word or the obligation of opening every single record with a sound collage. 

On “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key)” the chorus rings, “‘Please let me go,’ the prisoner moans, ‘No one has to know.’” It recalls the prisoner in Lifted’s “From a Balance Beam,” which says, “in all of my salvation I still felt imprisonment inside that cell…that is myself.” This "title track" is very much about being trapped in one's ways. The spiritual machine is a theory by the inventor of the synthesizer, a man named Ray Kurzweil, which becomes a clever reference to the prevalent use of synth on the album. It's an idea that eventually human consciousness will fuse with the internet and will no longer have to eat, sleep, or even die. In an interview with, Oberst said, "I think it's 100% achievable, especially when you think about how fast new machines invent newer machines, which invent the newer machines." So the idea becomes a reference to a self-perpetuating existence, trapped in some kind of code. The title is even more potent with its word ordering, making it seems as if the machine manufactures a person's spirit, pumping one out after the other. In an interview with NPR, Oberst said that "the people's key" was the key of "C," because "because you can hit all the white keys and you won't be playing out of key. It's the easiest key to play in for amateurs." The idea that the album is called this is in itself a bit of subtle self-deprecation as the "backwards black faced minstrel show" in the lyrics that "played it all from memory."
Distancing himself from some of the musical associations was a serious focus on every project beginning with the last Bright Eyes album, the rootsy and impressively orchestrated Cassadaga and through his fixed jam band “solo career.” Then Jason Boesel, drummer for Bright Eyes and The Mystic Valley band, said back in September of last year that the new record was “the best sci-fi emo album of the last twenty years.” It’s a stylistic direction that comes as kind of a shock at first, but when heard, it bears a strong resemblance to the psychic mysticism from Cassadaga. The People’s Key falls somewhere in the spectrum between 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and the punk rock side project Desaparecidos. There are parts that twinkle electronic and others that blaze quickly with distortion, making for the most accessible Bright Eyes album to date. It’s all accompanied by Rastafarian ideology and alien campfire stories. Oberst explained to NME magazine that the sound was, “for lack of a better term, contemporary, or modern,” or maybe even futuristic.

Although the record is kind of a musical departure from typical Bright Eyes form, on The People’s Key Oberst’s lyrics are very much the opposite. They’re about getting back in touch with earlier Bright Eyes releases as well as Oberst’s younger self, sitting in a basement with a four-track machine, strumming and screaming all night to pen his songs. That’s exactly what makes this album or any other album a “Bright Eyes album.” It’s not the somber, warbling, tear drenched stories about indecisive romances with a slow acoustic guitar. It’s not even the constant preoccupation with death and existential questioning of the afterlife. It’s the way that the records talk to one another through lyrical allusions and musical contradictions. It’s the saga of the internal struggles and transformations of this fictional character that Oberst has created, mostly based on himself. The fact that the tagline attached to this record like a sticker to the plastic wrap is “Bright Eyes’ final album” is significant, because in a lot of ways the record is a retrospective. What makes The People's Key so strong is that in returning to writing honest lyrics on how Oberst feels about his musical career and who it has made him, he has published a very complete dénouement chapter of the story.
The People’s Key opens up with a conversation about aliens, Hitler, and the fourth dimension with “Firewall.” The voice is a friend of Oberst’s named Danny Brewer who makes trippy music called Refried Ice Cream in his house in El Paso, Texas. Brewer talks about an alternate version of the Bible’s genesis in which the angels that came from heaven were actually aliens that proceeded to rape the humans in order to inbreed with them, resulting in half-reptilian babies after a few thousand years. Oberst told Spinner that “a lot of people could dismiss his ideas as conspiracy theories but, to me, as far out there as this stuff is, there's so much truth in it… Obviously, people's perception of it is different and one person's reality is another person's fantasy and vice versa.”
The role reversal of the angels rephrases the question of truth present on most Bright Eyes albums, the connectedness between good and evil, of life and death, as well as Oberst’s fears for his own salvation. He explained it quite well saying, "Everyone wants to be saved by something, I guess, whether it’s aliens or Jesus." The song that follows is a walk (and a nap) in a theme park. There are juxtapositions like “light to dark can shift in an instant,” a line about the classic versus the experimental: “the classicists, the posturing avant-garde,” and a time full of life like childhood contrasted with a death a child wouldn’t understand: “fills my mind with jump ropes and slit wrists.” “Firewall” is also the song with the strongest female presence, a hologram. She is something intangible, slipping through his very real fingers.
The People’s Key makes references to a few absolute rulers. On one side of the spectrum is Hitler, who is referenced quite a few times. There are direct references in “A Machine Spiritual” and “One for You, One for Me.” In “Jejune Stars,” the chorus repeats about Oberst putting an umbrella under his arm saying, “if it’s true what we’re made of, why do I hide from the rain?” It’s a nod to “Cartoon Blues,” from the Four Winds EP, where he says, “People are made up of water and fear.” The gesture draws associations to an anecdote about Hitler when he went to meet with Neville Chamberlain to discuss the annexation of Czechoslovakia. Apparently Hitler laughed at Chamberlain for carrying an umbrella with him.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the Lion of Judah, Haile Selassie. He was an Ethiopian Emperor and many believed him to be the messiah of the Rastafari movement. Oberst told Interview magazine that there was “a lot of the mythology that sprung up around him, it's not like something he asked for, having people deify him.” It’s certainly something that Oberst can relate to with people at concerts bursting into tears around him and jumping up on stage to bow before him (jump to 4:10). The song “Haile Selassie” nods at this connection as an unknown female voice sings through a blown Leslie speaker, “calling me home like Haile Selassie.”
“Firewall” introduces the main Rastafari concept on the album, that of “I and I.” At first, the sentiment seems very solipsistic particularly because it’s not in any song with Rasta references like “Haile Selassie,” and is just Oberst singing “I and I” over and over again. However, the idea is quite the opposite. It is carried through the album on nearly every song in different words, all the way through to “One for You, One for Me.” The name of that song itself is a play on the concept. The basic idea is that instead of a difference between two people there should be a one-ness, of treating others as if they were you, demonstrated in the phrase by using the same pronoun. Oberst sings at end the album, “You and me, that is an awful lie. It’s I and I.” In “Firewall” the last lines are, “bust through the fire wall into heaven and then I’m standing in that blinding light. Crooked crosses falling from the sky.” The album’s cover then becomes the obstacle of hell, the struggle of atonement which can only be accomplished through Oberst’s newfound Rastafarian concept. He can only enter that white light the way he repeats at the end of the song: “seen yeah, seen by I and I.”

Then there’s Ceasar.

The People’s Key is loaded with references to other Bright Eyes albums. Even the simple cut out pattern of the album is reminiscent of their first. The single from the record is “Shell Games” and it begins with “Took the fireworks and the vanity, the circuit board and the city streets, shooting star, swaying palm tree, laid them at the Arbiter’s feet.” Each item in that list is a symbol of a previous record. The fireworks are the cover of Letting off the Happiness, the vanity is Fevers & Mirrors, the circuit board signifies Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the streets of New York City are I’m Wide Awake, I’ts Morning, and the shooting star and swaying palm tree are for Cassadaga. Oberst says that he laid each at the feet of the “Arbiter,” who may be critics, may be just the listeners, or it may be St. Peter who stands at the gates of heaven. One album is, however, missing. There’s no symbol of Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground. This becomes a clever reference to “Let’s Not Shit Ourselves” and a statement of how personal that record is to Oberst, when he sings, “I do not read the reviews. No, I am not singing for you.”

In addition to references to other albums, many songs talk about going back to childhood and starting over. “Jejune” means juvenile or childish and the song has the lines, “So it starts again at our childhood’s end. I’ll die young at heart.” “A Machine Spiritual” ends with “We are starting over.” In “Beginner’s Mind” he sings, “You know what made you infamous to them, don’t you? You keep starting over.” The same song ends with a few lines Oberst directs at his younger self, “Stay a while my Inner Child, I’d like to learn your trick. To know what makes you tick.” It breaks away from the electric guitar and strips down to a familiar Oberst arrangement, just his voice and an acoustic guitar and an over accentuated warble. Suddenly, Oberst’s departure from Bright Eyes comes into a different light. Perhaps he departed for livelier, more carefree sounds and lyrics, because he doesn’t feel the same as his younger self. “Hold on tight Beginner’s Mind. The current is far too strong. It will carry you along until you’re just like everyone.” The fear becomes getting watered down with age. To be liberated of the fever that used to plague him, but to have also lost the inspiration. Oberst finishes by telling what he wants to his inner child, “to nurse you when you’re sick.”

Caesar comes into play, recollecting Oberst’s words about cleaning things up, locking the door, and saying goodbye. In “Firewall,” Oberst sings “I and I make toast to the Caesars.” A lot of “Haile Selassie” is about closing up shop with “all this despair is forgiven” and “all of our days are numbered.” It’s also about finding an apprentice. “I’ve taken some comfort in knowing the wave has crested, knowing I don’t have to be an exception.” The cresting wave, like the last page of a book. “Children they fill the bleachers,” as perhaps at an rock show, “One is the next Caesar.” Oberst then recognizes what he has left to do, “Keep all their minds collected until he comes, until he comes.”

If Oberst is a monarch of sorrow, then the Hitler and Selassie references gain a new significance. The spectrum becomes a scale, or a ladder, from the ruler that Oberst doesn’t want to be to the salvation he wants to achieve.

So, Oberst returns to his roots and with “Ladder Song” he gains the sentiment he was looking for in “Beginner’s Mind.” Full of evocative imagery and the best penned lyrics on the album, “Ladder Song” captures a truly honest moment. It has haunting lines like “this whole life is a hallucination.” Also, “you’re not unique in dying” recalls the end of Lifted; how a suicidal musician isn’t a new story. The jejune star returns with, “See now a star is born, looks just like a blood orange.” The line is like the fruit from Cassadaga, like “Cleanse Song.” It’s all about the timing of things, knowing when to bite into the fruit and knowing when to throw it away. Perhaps the star has another meaning, like in the entertainment industry, and is the new Caesar. Or perhaps it’s a more direct reference to the “fruit” in “Lime Tree.” Oberst gives us a beautiful image of what will happen to him. He will “get to the concert, run off with a dancer. Gonna celebrate.”

The album ends with a grizzled promotion of love and knowledge again by Brewer. He starts fumbling his speech, looking for something that he can't recall. Oberst supplies the word that is very familiar to him, a word that is something he is also looking for, from every person and entity that might be listening. Oberst says, "mercy."

The record is, of course, not as prolific or complete as Lifted or I’m Wide Awake. For one, it lacks the romantic journey that was so fun to follow on the other albums. Where it falters most is where the Rastafari professions seem a bit bland and feel like they belong more in the self-help section, such as the chorus for “Shell Games.” They seem like mantras that Oberst doesn’t really believe, but must repeat until he does. There are plenty of other lyrics that make up for it, like the standout track “Approximate Sunlight” in which Oberst makes the statement that we are “post-everything.” He also comically criticizes Cassadaga and his attempt at new age enlightenment with, “lick the solar plexus of some L.A. shaman.” The song is carpeted with some background noise as well, which are recordings Oberst made at various parties. The girl saying “He does have a tower that watches everything!” recalls the girls talking about cars and boys from a Desaparecidos track. Apparently Oberst carries a recorder with him everywhere these days.

The fact remains that no one writes music like this. Bright Eyes albums have a literary depth that seems cripplingly meticulous with an obsessive attention to detail, but sounds effortless. What’s more, the lyrical themes are brought to life by making the music and album packaging match them stylistically. All of which is reinvented on every single album.

Since that initial article last year, Oberst said to Interview about the future of Bright eyes, “You know, I'm leaving it open to whatever happens. I'm kind of like, "never say never." I think it will be the last one for the foreseeable future. But we're definitely not making any absolute statements.” 


In the Real World::

Conor Oberst, Mike Mogis, and Nate Walcott on the making of the album::

Full album stream and action packed listening party::

On World Cafe Session with NPR
Interview Magazine
Performer Magazine