Conor Oberst was just 22 when Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground turned Bright Eyes into something of a mainstream band (and Oberst into an inadvertent ambassador for emo, then a new and nebulous genre). Now, Oberst is about to turn 31, and in many ways The People's Key — the first new Bright Eyes LP since 2007's Cassadaga — is a record about relinquishing all "the fireworks and the vanity" of young manhood. "I'm still angry with no reason to be," he sings on "Shell Games," and it's that last bit — the acknowledgment of privilege — that belies his maturation. We all get older; the hot, righteous indignation of youth eventually wilts into something more reasonable — or at least something we can shake our heads at.
Like fellow shape-shifter Will Oldham, Oberst has released music under a cornucopia of guises, but Bright Eyes — his project with longtime producer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis and a rotating cabal of one-off contributors — feels like the most salient. Oberst had previously hinted that The People's Key would be the final Bright Eyes record (he's backed off that claim recently), and if it is, it's a glorious and triumphant end: Ambitious and eclectic, there are psych epics ("Haile Selassie"), teary-eyed piano ballads ("Ladder Song"), mesmeric fever dreams ("Approximate Sunlight") and nimble punk screeds ("Jejune Stars"). The record is riddled with 21st-century noise: bits of found sound, echo, and snippets of what sound like news broadcasts (or just overheard conversations) add plenty of unsettling texture.
Oberst is probably most celebrated for his lyrics (that's how he earned all those Dylan comparisons, after all), and there are loads of striking images here ("I saw hologram at the theme park/ She looked as real as me through the wet fog/ Then she melted down to her ankles/ Turned into a million-watt candle," he chants in opener "Firewall"). In between songs, Oberst intersperses some odd spoken-word bits from Randy Brewer, a Texas musician whose voice sounds like it was plucked from a Coen-brothers voiceover. "Space is expanding, there are spirits coming from the center, right?" Brewer pontificates. Well, OK: Brewer's ramblings can be interesting (at their best, they recall Tom Russell), but Oberst's confessions are infinitely more compelling. "It's been said we're post-everything," he opines on "Approximate Sunlight." Let's just hope Oberst isn't post-Bright Eyes quite yet.