The People’s Key is different, not better

When discussing new albums, “different” isn’t a word most avid fans like to hear.

Right after “I liked them before they got big,” the oldest phrase in the music fan book is “I like their earlier stuff … but they suck now.”

Strange vision · People’s Key, as is evident in the album cover, shows the more experimental side of Bright Eyes, with help from Denny Brewer. - Photo courtesy of Saddle Creek

Although bands inevitably get sick of their older work, fans can’t move past it.

After the band’s four-year hiatus and numerous side projects from Conor Oberst, it would be great to hear another classic, acoustic-heavy alternative country album from the members of Bright Eyes.

Their newest work, The People’s Key, is not that album. Oberst himself said he wanted to get away from the rootsy Americana music for which they became popular with this new release.

Sure, they’ve done it before. 2005’s Digital Ash In A Digital Urn was the band’s first full-out electronic effort. And although it was unlike any of the band’s earlier work, it was good. But it was released on the same day as the old-fashioned, rootsy Americana album I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, to keep the old fans interested.

That’s why I approached The People’s Key with extreme caution.

Complaints that the album is too different are somewhat warranted. Certain songs, such as the electric guitar-ridden “Jejune Stars,” would be unidentifiable as a Bright Eyes track without Oberst’s signature shaky voice and poetic lyrics.

The band also delves more heavily into psychedelia throughout the album. “Firewall,” the album’s opener, begins with a nearly two-and-a-half minute rant over ambient sounds by the 60-something Denny Brewer, singer of the politically opinionated band Refried Ice Cream, which has opened for Oberst in the past.

Brewer’s speeches on the fourth dimension, humans with reptilian-like features and other strange subjects continue at various points throughout the album. His voice is manipulated for an added trippy effect.

This type of aesthetic behavior isn’t unusual for Bright Eyes, but it feels over-the-top in this album.

The effect-heavy elements, such as the numerous unnecessary echoes and voice warps, are forced at certain points.

At times, Oberst seems like a pre-teen who just discovered Pink Floyd and his computer’s ability to run GarageBand. The effects are overused and predictable.

Overall, however, the CD still sounds somewhat like a Bright Eyes album and is a natural sonic progression from the band’s earlier works.

True fans won’t feel betrayed, however, as the newer elements of these songs add something unique and interesting to the band’s catalogue.

For instance, the beat on “A Machine Spiritual” sounds, not so subtly, like a machine working over and over. It’s theatrical and cheesy, but it somehow works.

With its simple beat, use of synthesizers and a chorus of here it comes / that heavy love, the lead single “Shell Games” -has all the makings of a cheesy ’80s pop/rock song.

But it has enough changes and captivating instrumentation that makes it possibly one of the album’s best tracks.

Different or not, there’s just something inherently Bright Eyes about it.

The album’s most stripped-down, intimate moment occurs on “Ladder Song,” which consists solely of a piano and Oberst’s clear, unaltered voice.

This is the type of situation in which Oberst usually shines, but this song lacks the uncomfortable romance of similarly bare songs like “Lua.”

The LP’s closer, “One for You and One for Me” sounds like an LCD Sound system B-side with its repetitive but complex drum loop and chorus.

And the heavy beat on “Approximate Sunlight” sounds like it could fit on Digital Ash In A Digital Urn.

In the end, there is enough variation on The People’s Key that things stay interesting.

But is the new Bright Eyes album a career defining work of art? Maybe.

Oberst and co. might not have mastered this non-rootsy, non-Americana music completely, but they’ve definitely taken a step in the right direction.