Oberst Explores God and the Cosmos Amongst Crackpot Rants

Bright Eyes
The People’s Key
Saddle Creek

Since Conor Oberst started releasing music in 1997 under the Bright Eyes moniker, he’s gone from side-banged, emo-kid poster- child to “next Dylan” prodigy and Americana troubadour. Now, with his return on The People’s Key (he’s been playing with Monsters of Folk and going solo with the Mystic Valley Band since 2007), Oberst is striving for his masterpiece.

The album has all the ingredients of a magnum opus — arty spoken-word interludes, Catholic angst, an expanded sonic palate — but somehow, the pieces don’t add up.

Oddly un-ironic ramblings, courtesy of Refried Ice Cream singer Denny Brewer, contemplate the cosmos… and, naturally, an ancient Sumerian theory on Anunnaki aliens. The sci-fi outbursts are humorously absurd at first, particularly on “Firewall,” but by their third appearance (“A Machine Spiritual”), they start to resemble the relentless bark of street-corner sermons.

The lyrics are rife with mythical and spiritual references: Sisyphus and an “L.A. shaman” are name-dropped, and on “Triple Spiral,” Oberst ruminates on his loss of faith (“I loved you Triple Spiral — father, son and ghost/But you left me in my darkest hour when I needed you”). The instrumentation — all synthesizers and distorted guitars — spoils what would normally be emotive songwriting. Catchy as the songs often are, they don’t have much impact.

It’s clear that Oberst is trying to ditch the folk style he’s championed on some of his best records, such as 2005’s I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, to become a full-fledged frontman; problem is, he’s always been most powerful on his own. It’s no coincidence that the simplest track, “Ladder Song,” is the album’s best. The somber piano ballad — an emotional mediation on a friend’s death — harkens back to the honesty that made Oberst so appealing in the first place. (5/10)

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