Album: The People's Key
Band: Bright Eyes
Label : Saddle Creek
Due perhaps to their practising at once the easiest and hardest of art forms (who doesn't know a handful of chords? and a bunch of words?), great poetic songwriters tend to be fidgety sorts. Leonard Cohen, for example, after releasing three albums of immortal songs in the sixties, evidently got bored with his miraculous gift for humming poems over a bit of acoustic guitar, and by the eighties had transformed into a hilariously different creature; a sleazy metaphysician crooning about eschatology and anal sex over a wall of impossibly awkward synthesisers. Dylan, too, famously found his initially simple gift intolerably inhibiting, and embarked on an endless succession of (sometimes bizarre) metamorphoses.
From the age of nineteen, Bright Eyes songwriter Conor Oberst has lived with the scrutiny of those distinctly oversensitive souls who value that type of song, and had detected a frighteningly gifted young songwriter with that same rare knack for humming poems. And for at least three albums, few would attest that Oberst's development disappointed. In five years, he left us with Fevers and Mirrors, Lifted, and It's Sunday Morning, I'm Wide Awake - three great records full of floating poetry (as in, it floats out the speakers) and numerous moving melodic meditations on time, love, God and that sort of thing.
Then Bright Eyes released Cassadaga, and Oberst announced (tacitly, through the songs, but also explicitly, in the promotional interviews) that he was, at least for the time being, abandoning the open-heart-surgery lyrical style that, while occasionally a little laughable (and always tempered with Oberst's intelligence and artistry) was also the source of his records' power. Suddenly it was gone, making way for wholesale intellectuality. The sense of imbalance was striking and a little worrying. His lyrics were now surreal, allusive, and frequently irritating: "Had a long conversation about the power of myth/ With a postmodern author that doesn't exist" an example of a couplet more likely to raise sneers than tears, as if Oberst (a genuine poet, lest we forget) had decided to spend a couple of semesters studying 'critical theory' at Yale.
That's actually unfair. Cassadaga remained a record infused with its creator's own idiosyncratic preoccupations - Oberst is more séance than seminar - but the exclusive focus on these preoccupations appeared to remove the centre of gravity from his songs, which also careened off in a dozen different stylistic directions, with country and western on one track, electronica on the next, and the listener unable to find their feet. It was his weakest set of songs since the prodigy's early teens, certainly, but most were happy to put it down to transitional troubles, and now turn to his new album, The People's Key, to see if the necessary metamorphoses has reached a more satisfactory stage.
It doesn't half start badly, with a cod-mystic David Ike sort waffling about aliens. We're talking conspiracy theory fodder here, which makes for bad art at the best of times (and couldn't seem starker on a Bright Eyes record), and the same berk pops up between a number of later tracks, talking what could probably be scientifically defined as 'mumbo-jumbo'. The track his inaugural waffle segues into, however, Firewall, is good, or very good, with a seductive and sparse guitar line underpinning Oberst's own vastly more proficient style of mumbo jumbo (aka, poetry): "Dreamt I was riding on a motorbike/ Lion of Judah painted on the side…" Conor intones, intriguingly, managing to make the last syllable rattle with a subdued roar.
Actually, Rastafarianism does seem to be one of the 'themes' of this bizarre record - later there's even a track called Haile Sellasie - and the new, more impersonal Oberst style is still in full effect, but it's fair to say that it comes off a little better than on Cassadaga. As does the musical melee, which is still as much of a smorgasbord (if there was a gun to my head, I'd describe it as a mixture of Bruce Springsteen and New Order) but is more consistent and coherent over the course of the album's ten songs.
Many of which, crucially, are very good, probably peeking in the record's charming crescendo, One For You, One For Me, in which Oberst lists a series of subtle binaries over a synthesiser's restrained, rousing pulse - "One for the tyrant / One for the slaughtered lamb" - leading up to the song's eponymous refrain, which he articulates with the crisp exactitude of a child dividing sweets, until the point stabs the listener - for all the inequality in the world (an inequality that persistently troubles Oberst's songs) there is one thorough, underlying and profound distribution: we get one life, each.
It's a nice moment. Moving without being autobiographical, no less, and it sent me back to the beginning of The People's Key with redoubled attention. And with each listen, new verses catch the ear. It'll take a while for Conor's legions to determine the true worth of this fascinating and promising album, but the signs look good, not only for The People's Key, but also the future of my generation's preeminent poetic songwriter.