In musical terminology, the G-major key is occasionally referred to as “the people’s key,” as it is one of the most oft-employed keys throughout both classical and popular music. While Bright Eyes has rarely been described as accessible, The People’s Key is easily the band’s most straightforward rock album.
Over the course of seven albums, Bright Eyes has demonstrated a continuous stylistic shift. The band gained particular national prominence in 2005 with the simultaneous release of two drastically different albums—the more electronic Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and the more acoustic I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Cassadaga, released in 2007, followed in the Americana vein of the latter and is a deeply, perhaps even over-the-top, conceptual album. Bright Eyes continues to reinvent itself and its sound, and The People’s Key, which is reportedly its last album, seems to be the culmination, as it shies away from the almost folk sound that the band and lead man Conor Oberst have honed in the past.
The album begins with “Firewall,” a song filled with stripped-down guitar sounds and drumming so rhythmic that it remains with the listener as more instruments are added. Keeping in line with openers from previous albums like Cassadaga and I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, the song opens with spoken word. A Southern-accented man speaks on a myriad of mystic topics, and as the song shifts, Oberst’s voice enters and provides a caustic parallel to the background melody. “Firewall” serves as a perfect introduction to an album that demonstrates the nuances of Bright Eyes—the abstract qualities beloved by fans, criticized by others—but with a shift toward a more mature, self-assured sound.
“Haile Salassie” is a percussive song that demonstrates the band’s departure from Oberst’s well-known folk sound. There are still hints of the abstract woven through the album, namely the continuation of the spoken word portion from “Firewall” that intermittently reappears throughout various songs. The vocal distortion on “Beginner’s Mind” reminds the listener that despite the immediacy of this album, this is still a Bright Eyes piece. “Ladder Song” is a keyboard-laden track that recalls the somber tones evident on previous works and also evokes a sense of finality.
What’s most striking about The People’s Key is that in separating itself from the conceptual underpinnings of Cassadaga and the somber, melancholy lyrics so unrelenting on I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, what remains is a pop-rock album. “I’m still angry with no reason to be,” Oberst sings on “Shell Games,” which is a bona fide Bright Eyes pop song. It begins with jangling sounds and becomes an upbeat tune propelled by just a touch of electronica. It’s familiar enough to sound like a Bright Eyes song, but it’s also something that the band’s label, Saddle Creek, could easily pass off as a single for alternative radio stations. “Triple Spiral” is another pop-style tune with an upbeat tempo that seems diametrically opposed to some of the earlier folk-inflected works of the band.
While The People’s Key sounds and feels more polished and refined than previous works, it also means that the Bright Eyes aesthetic most identifiable on 2005’s I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning is inevitably lost. Oberst himself has evolved from the wide-eyed wunderkind to something of a tour de force, like it or not, and it will be interesting to see which direction he takes if this is indeed the conclusion of Bright Eyes.
The People’s Key lacks some of the ingenuity present on previous Bright Eyes works, making it a bit less interesting than some of the earlier albums. Overall, it’s a decent album that isn’t bogged down in the conceptual, which is refreshing following Cassadaga. It does seem to be a fitting conclusion for a band that hasn’t relegated its sound to one specific genre or style.