The People’s Key, the eighth (and according to rumor, final) studio album by indie icons Bright Eyes, opens with a monologue about time, God, the Bible and the workings of the universe. These topics have haunted indie rock’s young hero, Conor Oberst, throughout his prolific career. On 2000’s Fevers and Mirrors, the teenage Oberst's melancholy lyrics and quivering vocals secured him his initial fan base. On 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Oberst employed distortion, synthesizers and drum machines as backdrop to his trademark gloomy, introspective lyrics. More recently, 2007's rootsy Cassadaga was augmented by a number of almost concurrent folksy side-projects by Oberst.
The People’s Key is intriguing, experimental, smart and more mature from almost all his previous material. Maybe it’s no coincidence that the album was released on Feb. 15, Oberst’s 31st birthday. With The People’s Key, Oberst appears to have finally grown up.
A departure from the band’s typically fuzzy, distorted primitiveness, tracks like the sing-along “Triple Spiral” and the anthemic “Haile Selassie” highlight the band’s surprising conversion to bubbly and danceable arrangements. Even Oberst’s voice has in some ways changed; he no longer has an unbearably pained scream and now sings almost cautiously, retracting from the passion he used to evoke.
If all the Bright Eyes albums up to now have represented Oberst’s adolescent pain, The People’s Key seems to be Oberst’s doorway into balance, wisdom and adulthood. While loyal fans may yearn for Oberst’s formerly ominous, lo-fi sounds, shockingly naked lyrics and painfully honest vocals, it is clear that Oberst has moved on and found comfort with the things that once disturbed his young mind. If The People’s Key is, in fact, Oberst’s final project under the Bright Eyes name, then it sure is a terrific way to go out, even if just slightly dissatisfying in comparison to his signature work.
— Sydney Ramsden