By Ricardo Baca
The Denver Post
- Bright Eyes, "The People's Key," Saddle Creek
It's always fascinating watching multitasking musicians divvy up their talents among an assortment of projects.
In the case of Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst, he's created multiple bands over the years - from the Commander Venus of his youth to the Monsters of Folk of his adulthood. While the sounds of his early work varied, the aesthetics of Oberst's recent projects - Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk and the Mystic Valley Band included - still somehow have their own distinct personalities.
Artists often speak of writing songs and filing them into specific mental folders - "Oh, this one came out like a Mystic Valley Band song" - and it's clear that Oberst is adept at this process.
But with the arrival of "The People's Key" - Bright Eyes' seventh album and its first in nearly four years - something else has become increasingly clear. Oberst is a valued talent, indeed, but he's at his best when writing songs with Bright Eyes in mind.
Bright Eyes is the indie group that swept kids off their feet in the late '90s and early '00s. Records such as "Fevers and Mirrors" were literate, occasionally desperate opuses that shined a light into the bright mind of Oberst, then just a 20-year-old creating music with his friends in Omaha.
The subject of adoration and obsession, Oberst's often-whispered lyrics have always had a way of haunting Bright Eyes' fans. It helps, too, that he and his collaborators can turn a memorable melody with ease - within the context of Bright Eyes more so than other projects.
And much of the excitement inside "The People's Key" is hearing those tones and intonations again. The record starts similarly to "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning," with a semi-related speech set over music that later grows into the album's first track.
Fast-forward through the first two minutes of "Firewall," and you'll find Oberst's contemplations set over a lonesome guitar.
And there's his voice - Oberst's voice. It's the same voice that recorded two solo records and formed the monstrous supergroup with Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and M. Ward (She & Him), but it's different. He's singing Bright Eyes songs, like the new "Shell Games," which wins us over immediately with its affable melodic jog.
"Jejune Stars" is a punchy number that pushes the blood through our veins. "A Machine Spiritual (In the People's Key)" comes off as a throwback to "Cassadaga," a meandering exploration that plays off its instrumental selections. And then there's "Haile Selassie," the record's great triumph and an experiment in rhythm and meter. The song's lyrical structure is quintessential Bright Eyes; it's smart and evocative while also telling a straightforward story.
Followers of Oberst's musical life can tell the difference between a Bright Eyes song and a solo Oberst song. And that's why we're celebrating the return of the former.