Column 309: Here it comes, that heavy love…
CD Review: Bright Eyes, The People’s Key
by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com
Bright Eyes’ new album, The People’s Key, comes out Feb. 15 on Saddle Creek Records. Conor Oberst’s publicist tells me that the band, which had just started rehearsals, has put all press inquiries on hold for the time being. Maybe when Bright Eyes gets ready for his June 4 show at WestFair we’ll get Conor’s perspective on the album, but until then, you’ll have to settle for mine in this review.
NPR.org, who has been streaming the album in its entirety for the past few weeks, came right out of the gate declaring it the “best record Bright Eyes has ever made. In fact, it’s the best record the band’s frontman, Conor Oberst, has ever been a part of.” Only time will prove if NPR is right, though I don’t know how you could declare any album as being an artist’s “best.” It might be your favorite, but “best”? Come on…
I will say this: I like The People’s Key much more than Oberst’s last solo album and his Monsters of Folk material, and that’s somewhat concerning to me as I’ve always said that all this talk about this being “Bright Eyes final album,” was pure silliness since Bright Eyes at its core is Oberst. However, there’s no denying that Oberst is a different man when it comes to Bright Eyes. From both a musical and lyrical standpoint, Bright Eyes records just hold together better, like reading a great novel as compared to a collection of short stories. The thematic essence of Bright Eyes albums is more consistent and, well, satisfying than what he’s produced under his solo banner.
The album keeps with the Bright Eyes tradition of starting with a spoken-word audio clip. For Cassadaga, Bright Eyes’ last album, it featured a (presumably) big-haired southern woman talking about spiritual centers that attract “believers,” like the Florida town the album was named after. This time it’s “Shamanic” vocalist Denny Brewer of the band Refried Icecream doing an L. Ron Hubbard-esque spiel about spaceships and lizard men at the beginning of the world. Brewer occasionally sticks his head in between songs, sounding like Will Ferrell imitating Harry Caray. For long-time fans, this eccentric touch is part of what you come to a Bright Eyes album for, though later on you’ll find yourself figuring out ways to cut out those opening two and a half minutes so you can get right to the first song.
In this case, that song is “Firewall,” a simple melody draped in dread built upon a sinister, circular electric guitar line. Oberst spits out his vision of talking ravens and artificial theme parks before getting to his own artificial reality and his escape from it via jump ropes and slit wrists. Breaching the “firewall” opens the melody to the glorious heavens, before it comes back down.
If there’s a theme that ties the album together its Oberst’s dwelling on the inevitability of death. Every song has an allusion to death or dying, a theme approached now with resignation, though it’s something (based on earlier Bright Eyes material) that Oberst figured out long ago.
That theme is most obvious on the album’s ultimate downer number, “Ladder Song,” with its subtle opening lines:
No one knows where the ladder goes
You’re gonna lose what you love the most
You’re not alone in anything
You’re not unique in dying
Mournful piano and Conor at his most quivering. In the old days, this would have been a song about a broken heart or a strung-out night spent in Manhattan. My how things change as you get older. And unlike, say, Prince’s song about a ladder, there’s no salvation or hope at the end of this one. About to turn 31, Conor seems too young to be dwelling on death, but then again, there were those who wondered if he’d even live to see 30.
The People’s Key might be Bright Eyes’ most consistent album from a songcraft perspective. There is a straightforward quality here that is undeniable; everything seems self-contained, pulled together and kept from going on tangents. The end product is an even line from beginning to end. Predictable, and for a lot of music-goers, that can be very satisfying.
But there is something missing. On every other Bright Eyes album, there was one perfect moment that jumped off the disc, unique and demanding a rewind, the perfect song for the mix tape. From I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning it was “Lua.” From Cassadaga it was “I Must Belong Somewhere.” From Lifted, it was “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” and “Lover I Don’t Have to Love” and “Bowl of Oranges” and “You. Will. You. Will? You. Will? You. Will?” and “Waste of Paint” — a song that you can’t turn off or skip over after it’s begun.
I’ve been listening to this album for a couple weeks and that song hasn’t jumped up and waved its arms at me yet. Maybe it will later, I don’t know. Maybe it’s more than I should expect.
That’s the thing about Bright Eyes albums. Those of us who have followed the band since the days when Conor wore glasses expect every release to be a masterpiece. And maybe that’s what separates Oberst’s solo work from his Bright Eyes efforts — that he and cohorts Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott also approach each album as if it were something more than just a collection of songs.
Time will tell if The People’s Key was a just a collection of songs or a “masterpiece” or a “best” or just a favorite. Right now it’s just a good album.
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So my rating for The People’s Key is a firm “Yes.” Let me echo Omaha World Herald music guy King Kevin Coffey and ask, “Will it top the Billboard charts when it’s released next week?” I don’t see much standing it its way. There are new ones coming out by Sonic Youth (Hey, MAHA, now there’s a band to consider), P.J. Harvey, Mogwai and Drive-By Truckers, none of which are a threat to Conor and Co.
It doesn’t take much anymore to top the charts. Decemberist’s awesome The King Is Dead was a Billboard No. 1 only needing to move 94,000 copies during its debut week to mount the summit. It helps when the mp3 download is only $7.99 at Amazon (or in Arcade Fire’s case, as low as $3.99 during its release week). How low will The People’s Key be offered on Amazon (or iTunes)? If it’s a $3.99 download, look out.
But what do I know about the music business? When it comes to these sorts of discussions, I always turn to Mike Fratt, who runs Homer’s Records. Mike is more skeptical. He doesn’t think The People’s Key will top the charts. “Because the Soundscan week includes the Valentine’s weekend (historically a good week for music sales) and the week post-Grammys (2/13) I don’t think Bright Eyes will hit No. 1,” Fratt said. “I do think it will achieve top 5, but at a lower number than 2007’s Cassadega.”
He thinks Arcade Fire, Mumford & Sons, Eminem, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry all will chart higher than People’s Key, helped along by Grammy performances. “Looking at this week’s Soundscan, Conor & Co. may have to generate at least 30 to 35(000) to make top 5,” Fratt said. “I’d be surprised if they make that, although the album sounds good.”
Cassadaga logged in at No. 4 on the Billboard charts with first-week sales at just slightly north of 58,000. And 11,000 of those sales were digital downloads — around 19 percent. If Amazon offers The People’s Key at $3.99, you could see downloads grab a bigger percentage this time ’round.
Fratt predicts total first-week sales to be around 27,000, and he hopes a ton of those are bought at Homer’s, where they’re guaranteeing the album will be in stock through Feb. 27. “We bought a lot, but if we run out (Saddle Creek) will drop some off vs. us having to reorder through ADA or a one stop. CD = $9.99 LP = $19.99! through 2/27.” Get your ass to Homer’s, people.
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Pitchfork reported yesterday that Titus Andronicus has been added to a few Bright Eyes dates, which should make for an entertaining evening considering how Titus frontman Patrick Stickles’s vocals are forever being compared to Conor Oberst’s vocals. Here’s what Stickles told me last September when I asked him about the Oberst comprisons:
“I’ll tell you because you rep the Omaha readership,” Stickles said. “I think it’s a little short-sighted. The constant comparisons to anyone gets old, even if it’s Jesus Christ. Doesn’t everyone want to be themselves? Don’t we all want to blaze our own trail, though I know this is rock and roll, and there’s not too much under the sun? But it seems kind of like, uh, cheapening slightly to say that if you’ve heard one guy you can pretty much guess what this guy is going to sound like. After awhile it feels like a feedback loop, a house of mirrors, like sometimes (reviewers) get these things to sound so similar that I’m reading reviews of other reviews. But maybe that’s me being a self-righteous, entitled type. Even if it were true, is it helpful? Who’s to say? It’s not in my control. As I put my art out into the world, it’s out of my hands. History will judge.”
It will indeed.
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It’s going to be cold outside but oh so hot inside The Slowdown tonight for Interpol. Opening is School of Seven Bells, who came through The Waiting Room last September. Here’s the review from that show:
The best moments came when guitarist Benjamin Curtis was allowed to run wild run free. His tone was amazing; it reminded me of every great soaring guitar solo of ’80s post-New Wave/dream rock era. The Deheza sisters sounded like what you’d imagine Azure Ray would sound like fronting a dance band. Unfortunately, too often the vocals were buried in the mix and sounded limp, like an afterthought. As with the opener, the sound would have benefited from more bottom end (no bass again). The 70 or 80 people on hand spent the night huddled by the stage, but few if any danced, except for one girl who spent the evening with her arms in the air. Maybe that’s why they didn’t come out for an encore after their 45 minute set concluded. A pity. I could have listened to them for another hour.
Get there early and get out of the cold. See you at the show…
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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2011 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.