Bright Eyes has a new album coming out on February 15th. It’s called The People’s Key, and the entire thing is streaming for free now on NPR. You can listen here.

Thus far, critical reception has been positive. NPR even described the album as a “career-defining work of art.” But every time the album’s discussed, the same thing comes up…. It’s different.

When discussing new albums, “different” isn’t a word most avid fans like to hear. With bands, people don’t like change. Right after “I liked them before they got big”– the oldest phrase in the music fan book– is “I like their earlier stuff… but they suck now.”  While bands get sick of their older work, fans can’t move past it.

After the band’s four year hiatus and numerous Conor Oberst side projects, it’d be great to hear another classic, acoustic-heavy alternative country album from Bright Eyes. The People’s Key is not that album. Oberst himself has said he wanted to get away from the rootsy Americana music for which they became popular with the new release. Different.

Sure, they’ve done it before. 2005‘s Digital Ash In A Digital Urn was the band’s first full out electronic effort, and although it was unlike any of the band’s earlier work, it was good. But it was released on the same day as the old fashioned, rootsy Americana album I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning in order to keep the old fans interested.

That’s why I approached The People’s Key with extreme caution.

The complaint that the album’s too different is somewhat true. Certain songs, such as the electric guitar-ridden “Jejune Stars,” would be unidentifiable as Bright Eyes tracks without Oberst’s signature shaky voice and poetic lyrics.

The band also delves more heavily into psychedelia throughout the album. “Firewall,” the album’s opener, begins with a nearly two and a half minute rant over ambient sounds by the over sixty year old Danny Brewer, singer of the politically opinionated band Refried Ice Cream, who has opened for Oberst in the past. Brewer’s speeches on the fourth dimension, humans with reptilian like features, and other similar subjects continue at various points throughout the album, and his voice is manipulated for added psychedelic effect.

This type of behavior isn’t unusual for Bright Eyes, but it’s over the top on this album. The psychedelic and effect-heavy elements almost seem forced at certain points, such as the numerous unnecessary echoes and voice warps. At times, Oberst seems like a pre-teen that just discovered Pink Floyd and his computer’s ability to run GarageBand. The effects are just overused and predictable.

Overall, however, the album sounds like a Bright Eyes album, a natural progression in sound from the band’s earlier works. True fans shouldn’t feel betrayed, as the newer elements of these songs add something unique and interesting to the band’s catalogue.

For instance, the beat on “A Machine Spiritual” sounds, not so subtly, like a machine working over and over. It’s theatrical and cheesy, but it works somehow.

With its simple beat, use of synthesizers and a chorus of “here it comes / that heavy love,” the lead single “Shell Games” has all the makings of a cheesy 80s pop/rock song. But it has enough changes and captivating instrumentation that it’s unique and, possibly, one of the album’s best. Different or not, there’s just something inherently Bright Eyes about it.

The most stripped down, intimate moment occurs on “Ladder Song,” which consists solely of a piano and Oberst’s clear, unaltered voice. This is the type of situation in which Oberst usually shines, but this song lacks the uncomfortable romance of similarly stripped down songs like “Lua.”

The album closer, “One for You and One for Me” sounds like an LCD Soundsystem B-side with it’s repetitive but complex drum loop and chorus. The heavy beat on “Approximate Sunlight” sounds like it could fit on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. The point is that there’s enough variation on The People’s Key that things stay interesting.

Is the album a career defining work of art? Maybe. Bright Eyes may not have mastered this non-rootsy, non-Americana music completely, but they’ve definitely taken a step in the right direction.

Will Hagle
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