To Die By Your Side

Light to dark can shift in an instant

August 7th, 2011

It occurred to me the other day that I hadn’t written anything about Bright Eyes‘ 2011 release, ‘The People’s Key‘. Don’t worry, that wasn’t a comment on the record’s quality. It’s more of an oversight on my part as it has been a record that I’ve found myself coming back to pretty regularly. In fact it’s probably the best thing Conor Oberst has been involved with since the double whammy of ‘Digital Ash in a Digital Urn‘ and ‘I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning‘. As much as I enjoyed ‘Cassadaga‘, it felt a bit too serious, mature and dare I say it, countrified. His solo efforts meanwhile, were okay but nothing more. They lacked anything that really stood out. Conor seemed to have calmed down and I think I always prefer him when he’s on the verge of spittting the lyrics out with that petulant anger of his earlier work. There seemed to be too much slide guitar and not enough frustrated rage. As for Monsters Of Folk, well, despite several attempts I don’t think I ever got much further than half way through that record. I think it’s fair to say that, like a bad meal, it just didn’t agree with me. So for me, ‘The People’s Key’ signals some kind of return to what I want from Bright Eyes.

With the country tinges virtually shown the door, this return to his Bright Eyes moniker seems to signal a meeting point between what he was doing on earlier records and the sounds of ‘Cassadaga’ onwards. He’s managed to continue the maturer sound of his later work but it’s no longer as straight forward, sensible or stuffy. So what we get is tighter songwriting infused with the playfulness of his youth. As though he’s found a comfortable medium between natural raw talent and the skilled musicianship that comes with a career making music.

In many ways this record feels more like a natural successor to ‘Wide Awake’ and ‘Digital’. Mixing alt folk rock with electronic flourishes, this is a return to the noisier days of yore. Okay, it’s more restrained and you never quite feel that Conor is still rallying against the world, but that’s probably more down to a calm that comes with age than a desperate attempt at recapturing the past. There’s no self parody at work here just some great songs that worm their way in.

For me, the only thing that doesn’t work on this record are the spoken interludes. On past records, these parts have worked in harmony with the theme and mood of the record. On ‘The People’s Key’ they just seem tiresome and annoying. A stream of conscious rant about lizard people that from a crazy man which quickly descend from kind of interesting to tiresome and unnecessary. If you saw a wild eyed man blurting this out in the street you’d avoid him, unfortunately it’s not so easy when it’s between songs. You certainly ┬ádon’t need to hear them again and again and frankly, the record wouldn’t lose anything if they’d been omitted. Sure it’s a minor quibble on a good record but one so prominent that it needed mentioning.

That aside, this is a really good Bright Eyes album. A return to the name that manages not to embarrass it or desecrate the reputation. If you come here looking for the band that made ‘Lifted’, chances are you will be disappointed because that was a moment in time where everything aligned perfectly to create it. Conor is older and more experienced. The wilder elements have been tamed, the edges smoothed. The fire may have dimmed but as these session versions attest, it still burns.

Bright Eyes – firewall (live session version) : original version available to buy on ‘The People’s Key

Bright Eyes – triple spiral (live session version) : original version available to buy on ‘The People’s Key

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