Hey, so while you’re (hopefully patiently) explaining to me what’s so fucking great about …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead, do you think you could take a few minutes to tell me why I should give a shit about Bright Eyes? Feel free to use big words, too. I’m a writer. Seriously though, I liked one or two tracks off of I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, but Conor Oberst wants to be my generation’s Bob Dylan so bad it’s a little embarrassing and that fact (combined with a few others) makes it impossible for me to sit through an entire Bright Eyes album comfortably.
This is where a professional reviewer might hit you with, “until now.” But I am not a professional and I don’t want to hit you with anything, mostly because the things that used to annoy me about Bright Eyes remain unchanged. Oberst, fresh out of his Nashville Skyline phase (Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band), is back in full “Indie Deity” mode on the brand-spanking new The People’s Key, a pretentious, Rastafarian-obsessed album that will be so frequently described as “experimental” in the next few weeks that it’ll make your ass hurt. If you can’t tell, I don’t have a lotta love for Bright Eyes, but I always find myself listening to them when they put out a new album, probably because of those two or three songs that I enjoyed back in 2005.
I don’t really have a problem with pretentious music (I like Yo La Tengo, for dog’s sake, and they might be the most pretentious band on the planet), but pretentiousness is a double-edged sword upon which The People’s Key skewers itself almost immediately. “Firewall” starts off with a couple minutes of spoken-word bullshit, courtesy of Refried Ice Cream guitarist Danny Brewer. Dude chatters on about the fourth dimension (if you’re gonna talk about the fourth dimension, I suggest you start by asking yourself one question: “Am I Kurt Vonnegut?” If the answer to that question is “no”, you should maybe shut the fuck up about the fourth dimension) and lizard people, sounding not a little bit like that crazy 9/11 Truther asshole David Icke. It’s the exact kind of indulgence that provides such deadly ammo to Conor Oberst’s detractors. And the album, like a lot of Bright Eyes albums, tries so hard to come off as this wise-beyond-its-years, universal record (see “One for You, One for Me” for the kind of pseudo-deep schmaltz you haven’t heard in song form since maybe Van Halen’s “Right Now”) that it can’t really help but fall on its face. Though I do give Bright Eyes and Conor Oberst respect for swinging for the fences every time out.
There are some pretty decent melodies on The People’s Key, but the album is stuffed with the kind of studio fuckery (echo effects, lots of useless noise) that I hated on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, which was released at the same time as the mostly-acoustic/folky I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. And Brewer doesn’t go away after “Firewall,” so if his spiels ruin the beginning of The People’s Key for you, expect them to ruin the end as well (and if you honestly like his contributions to this album, why? What do they add for you?). “Triple Spiral” is pretty decent, but the album mostly reaffirms what is so frustrating for me about Conor Oberst – for the most part, I like his lyrics (the line about “a snuff film on a Jumbo-Tron” in “Beginner’s Mind” is pretty good), but the instrumentation on a lot of these songs is obnoxious (and “Beginner’s Mind” is ruined by a digitized vocal effect at the end that just pisses me right off). Bright Eyes consistently shows me they can make awesome music and then consistently pulls that rug out from under me by making infuriatingly self-indulgent music instead.
Part of it, for me, is Oberst’s voice. He has almost a trademark vocal tremor that has never really seemed natural to me. I don’t necessarily want to accuse the guy of posing (but come on, he’s posing a little. You can see that, right?), but I don’t believe that the dude needs to sound so warbly and unstable on every fucking song. It frequently makes him come off as needlessly intense and it’s telling to me that, of the tracks of his I do like, there’s a minimum of the Trademark Conor Oberst Tremor.
As with …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead’s Tao of the Dead, I know that a lot of people will love The People’s Key and I’ll come off as an obstinate prick for disliking it, but so be it. I know there will be a fuss about this album and I just don’t see what it’s about. I actually mostly like three of the last four songs (yes, “One for You, One for Me” is cornier than a Nebraska turd, but it’s also undeniably pretty – until Danny Brewer shows up to close out the album again with his philosophical crap. Here’s a bit of sage advice for all you musicians out there: if you’ve got a buddy who you think has some unique thoughts on life, the universe, and everything and you think it’d be cool to record some of that shit and mash it up with the songs on your new album, don’t. It is literally never good, ever, when anybody does that. It’s exceedingly pretentious and, if you’re already pretentious, that’s gonna doom your album for sure),which probably makes this my favorite Bright Eyes album; but that’s not saying a whole lot. Honestly, I probably like about five and three-quarters of the songs on The People’s Key, but I wouldn’t listen to them over just about anything else in my collection. In fact, The People’s Key isn’t even a part of my collection – I listened to it for free (several times) on NPR’s “First Listen”, which saved me the trouble of having to pay for the thing (or – more likely – having to sheepishly ask one of my friends to lend me a copy. Although I’m pretty sure none of my friends are Bright Eyes fans, unless they’re deeply closeted ones). Even among the songs I like, there’s none that compel me to purchase this album outright and if I received a copy for free, I’d most likely trade it in somewhere for the new Drive-By Truckers album, which I believe also came out today and which is, judging by last year’s The Big To-Do, far more likely to satisfy my obstinate prick tastes.