After cracking a wider audience with 2005 album 'I'm Wide Awake It's Morning' (and, in part, its sister album 'Digital Ash in a Digital Urn'), Conor Oberst took his ever-present folk and alt-country sensibilities and made them his main preoccupation, dominating every album he's released between then and now. And while he remained an eloquent songwriter, the change in direction sidelined the eccentric qualities that were the appeal of Bright Eyes, resulting in the understandably poorly received 'Cassadaga', two underwhelming records under his own name and supergroup sideproject Monsters of Folk. Now, for the first time in six years, Oberst has released a record that hints at the ragged, ramshackle style in which he once excelled.
At this point it's just tradition for a Bright Eyes album to open with a spoken word passage, though this one is even more nonsensical and falsely profound than usual. Oddly though, our speaker returns at intervals throughout the record, offering theories on the universe, aliens, religion, science and time, and though it all seems vaguely sardonic, it's difficult to work out exactly what point Oberst is trying to get across. It hardly matters by the time the dirty plucked guitar of 'Firewall' finally kicks in, soon to be joined by dark atmospherics and thumping drum beat.
Though the likes of 'Jejune Stars', with its scrubby guitars and catchy chorus, and the synth-driven 'Shell Games' are among the best upbeat numbers in the Bright Eyes catalogue, Oberst is still stronger in a minor key. The stripped-down 'Ladder Song' is beautiful in its simplicity, its echoing piano crackling as if it were the soundtrack to an old silent movie. Yet it's 'Approximated Sunlight' that most closely resembles the Bright Eyes of yore, blending sombre backing vocals and bending slide guitar with found recordings and inserted pieces of dialogue.
While there's just as many dour, downbeat tunes here as there are of the opposite, overall it's the lyrics that make this feel like a more positive album than its predecessors. In that way, 'The People's Key' doesn't come close to matching the raw, distressed, raging and often f**ked up emotional turmoil that once made Bright Eyes so affecting. On the other hand, Oberst has re-awoken his more experimental side, and well, if this is the result of being happier now than ten years ago, we can hardly begrudge him that.