Bright Eyes: The People’s Key and Video Tour

It’s easy for our imagination to diminish with age, to allow a fixed understanding of reality to destroy our ability to dream and think. Comparing his earliest work to his latest, I’ve concluded that perennial songwriter Conor Oberst doesn’t have this problem.

“And if the lava monster came, I would block his flame. From hurting you,” an expressive but raw 13-year-old Oberst sang in 1994 on Here’s to Special Treatment, a rare short-run cassette tape.

Now in his early thirties, Oberst’s headspace is no longer filled with lava monsters, replaced by a world of electronic souls, dictators, messiahs and lizard men from the sky; imagery that describes an apocalypse that has more to do with a lifting of the veil than an end of everything.

I’ll be blunt. Bright Eyes’ eighth and rumored last full-length studio album, The People’s Key, is a very, very cool from front to back.

Sonically, it feels like a less cluttered spiritual successor to the band’s 2005 release Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, as both can be considered departures from the grandiose folk sound that most have come to expect from the band. And though critics typically treated that album as a sort of black sheep of their catalogue, time has been kind to the collection of songs. Personally, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn has become one of my favorite albums of all time, making Bright Eyes’ return to synthesizers and electricity exciting, to say the least.

Where Digital Ash featured layers upon layers of samples and percussion, The People’s Key features restraint. But that’s not to say this album lacks quirks. Minimalistic grungy electric guitars and the occasional metal drum fill are surprising, rocking and fun.

Lyrically, Oberst is Oberst- though for better or worse this work is less about heart-on-sleeve emotion, stinging anger and his personal destruction than previous attempts. A more mellowed songwriter, he approaches topics with understanding instead of scorn. Oberst has always explored the things that divide societies and cultures, but this time through a spacey Rastafarian lens of togetherness with imagery so thick it could almost be at the heart of a cult.

“In the jungle there’s columns of purples light,” sings Oberst in “A Machine Spiritual (In The People’s Key),” sounding much like a preacher creating his own mythology.

In spots, it’s as if the band is treading familiar ground in new way. Again, Oberst examines death and the afterlife, but this time without fear or sadness in his voice. And again he examines the politics of our society, though in a less polarizing fashion than in the past.

For those wanting Cliff Notes for this record, “Jejune Stars,” “Haile Selassie,” “A Machine Spiritual (In The People’s Key),” and “Triple Spiral” are all standout tracks that really illustrate what this album is and where it excels.

A music writer once criticized Oberst for being stuck in perpetual adolescence, but this album shows his growth as he’s become a more collected individual than the young, screaming rock prodigy erupting behind microphones a decade ago, again, for better or worse.

The People’s Key is a work of art. NPR went as far to say it’s the band’s best. I won’t say that, as I’m partial to the over-the-top passion for which the band’s detractors have despised them for in the past. But I like this album for different reasons. It’s a fascinating and fun, though heavy at times as it strives to be a musical journey into an imaginary future. And it succeeds at standing out even among Bright Eyes’ substantial body of work.

Over the years, Bright Eyes has become one of my favorite bands to follow and one of the few bands that I still look forward to hearing new releases from. Though the band’s music has captivated the imagination of fans and critics, sometimes it’s frontman Conor Oberst eccentricities that get the press. From his scathing indictment of politicians, to his love affairs with older women, which include actress Winona Ryder, sometimes people get distracted from the music that won him notoriety in the first place.

Listening to their large body of work, two things are apparent. One, the music stands for itself. And two, with every song, Bright Eyes shows something new. Being so raw when they started and having such a long, storied career at this point, it’s been interesting watching the group evolve musically and lyrically; as performers and as people. This brings us to their latest release, The People’s Key.

Truthfully, there’s nothing that I can write about this band’s journey that you can’t see for yourself in a video. And in honor of The People’s Key, I wanted to pay tribute to the seven full-lengths that came before it by spotlighting a live performance of at least one song from each album. On Youtube, there exists a virtual paper trail of shaky camera footage all leading to the core of what this band is really about. Each performance on this list is unique. Some are polished. Some are rough and arguably bad. Some of the audiences in these videos consist of a handful of people and some crowds are the size of small cities.

Basically, this band is up, down, and all over the place.

And I love it.

I’ve been able to see Bright Eyes live once. It was in 2007, the day I graduated college.

I still remember my friend texting me “Hosty!” that night. It was an attempt to lure me to The Deli where a group of my friends were celebrating our year’s achievements with Norman’s favorite son, Mike Hosty. Already at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, I wrote back “Bright Eyes” incredibly satisfied with where I was. Even later when I returned home to ongoing parties well into the night, amazement from the show remained in my eyes and on my mind.

So, if you’ve never seen Bright Eyes, here’s is what you’ve missed over the past fifteen plus years. If you have seen them, I hope you enjoy this trip down memory lane.

A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 (Released by Saddle Creek Records in 1998)

Even being a fan, this album is incredibly rough and at times hard to listen to. That’s not say it’s without gems. The song “Falling Out of Love at This Volume” comes to mind. Here’s some amateur footage of the band revisiting this song in 2005. It’s not the best video. This isn’t their best album. Here’s a quote from the performance: “Anyways this is a song… Old, old song. Old, old, old song. So old that it’s not actually even any good. We’re gonna play it anyway,” Oberst said in the introduction, which can barely be made out amid overly audible audience members next to the cameraman.

Falling Out of Love at This Volume

Letting Off the Happiness (Released by Saddle Creek Records in 1998)

Showing drastic improvement in their second effort that year, this album features some very stellar folk and electronic tracks. “June on the West Coast” stands out as being very spare but well written. As for this performance, it feels as intimate as the song, featuring only Oberst and his guitar.

June on the West Coast

Fevers and Mirrors (Released by Saddle Creek Records in 2000)

In this video, Oberst appears to have just learned piano and is performing to what looks like a small recital. He is incredibly rough and has to stop and start repeatedly throughout the performance. Why do I like this performance? Because he finishes the song, despite feeling like shit. And it’s good to know that even people who are destined to become rockstars get off to rocky starts sometimes. Also check out the video of “The Calendar Hung Itself” to see what happens when you stick with things.

When the Curious Girl Realizes She’s Under Glass

The Calendar Hung Itself

Lifted or The Story is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to The Ground (Released By Saddle Creek Records in 2002)

“Let’s Not Shit Ourselves” is an epic 10-minute mega song that MTV chopped up and cut to four. Accompanied by a giant band, a young Oberst is in an entertaining sloppy form, bursting out clumsily in multiple directions and screaming for effect. This performance is unique for the reactions it elicits. Notice the guy who jumps on stage only to begin kowtowing, followed soon after by an angry guy who spits at Oberst. Pretty awesome.

Let’s Not Shit Ourselves (MTV cut)

I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (Released by Saddle Creek in 2005)

When you become known for things like stumbling around and screaming, sometimes people start to see you as some sort of cartoon character. This performance of “At the Bottom of Everything” features a more mature, calmer, more reserved singer.

At the Bottom of Everything

And in this song features everyone smashing shit.

Road to Joy

Digital Ash in A Digital Urn (Released By Saddle Creek in 2005)

I love this album for its gluttonous amounts of instrumentation. Not a lot needs to be said. It’s electric. It’s sprawling. It’s beautiful. This performance shows a tremendous amount of polish from a band that sometimes known for spiraling through a set. And if you watch shows from 2005, you might see a more intoxicated Oberst pouring his heart out but forgetting lyrics. Watch the clip of “I Believe in Symmetry” to see the contrast.

Gold Mine Gutted

I Believe In Symmetry

Cassadaga (Released By Saddle Creek in 2007)

“Classic Cars” is kind of an underrated song on this album. I guess I could have gone with “Four Winds” but there’s no fun in that. Someone pointed out to me that this appearance on Craig Ferguson’s program marked a definite change in feel from previous performances, and I have to agree. There’s no ruckus here, no anger, just a lovely song.

Classic Cars

Hope you enjoyed this musical journey through youtube. If you did, be sure to check out The People’s Key. Peace.

(c) James Nghiem All rights reserved

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