Bright Eyes: The People's Key

The cover image of The People's Key by Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes' career can effectively be summed up as a process of movement and discovery; a movement from low-fi to hi-fi and a gradual discovery of a folk tradition. When discussing the band, the focus is most often on singer-songwriter Conor Oberst - who to many is Bright Eyes - but amidst the every-changing backdrop of bandmates there is one constant feature that has had more of an effect on the band's sound than he seems to get credit for: Mike Mogis.

Mogis was the one who saw potential in Oberst's early four-track recordings and kick-started the sessions that led to the first proper Bright Eyes album, 1998's Letting Off the Happiness. From then on the two worked together, and every album since then shows a steady improvement in terms of recording quality, as they both learned the process together. The upside of this slow improvement was that Oberst's songwriting and Mogis' production developed in tandem; the rough and ready songs of Fevers and Mirrors were treated with a rough and ready production, and by the time the songwriting reached its peak in 2005's dual albums I'm Wide Awake It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, the production values were at the same level.

Aside from the production side of things, Mogis' influence spread to the sound, too. His experiences with an earlier band, Lullabyes for the Working Class, (the first act to achieve any level of real success from the community that eventually morphed into Saddle Creek records) showed that there was an appetite for what he and Oberst thought of at the time as 'exotic' instrumentation. In reality what they had stumbled upon was the rich vein of American traditional music; a seam they mined for the length of their album-recording career. The sporadic, indiscriminate use of mandolins and peddal-steel guitars soon lead to a greater understanding of the source material, and the effect was a steady increase of 'folk' influences on Bright Eyes albums. Again, the artistic zenith of this process was I'm Wide Awake It's Morning, heralded by the appearance of americana doyenne Emmylou Harris on several of the album's tracks, but still the journey continued to the point that 2007's Cassadaga could be fairly described as an out-and-out country record.

The trouble was that for all Cassadaga was Bright Eyes' 'purest' record from the point of view of genre, it was also their worst creatively. Gone was the steady increase of quality; the best that could be said for it was that it was on the same level as their last album, but many people (including this writer) saw it as a shocking downturn. Coupled with the sudden increase in Oberst's side project work (an eponymous solo album, his inclusion as a fourth of the Monsters of Folk project, and his many appearances with his Mystic Valley Band) many thought this was the end of the road for Bright Eyes. Viewed in that context, the announcement that this new album, The People's Key, is to be the last Bright Eyes album comes as no surprise, and one could be forgiven for guessing that Oberst and Mogis wanted to set the record straight one last time.

And thankfully it's done just that. Gone are the overwrought folk and americana flavours, to be replaced by a return to the band's old aesthetic; a eclecticism of genre and a taste for vintage synth sounds prevailed in Oberst's early work, and they make a triumphant reappearance on this new record.

This time, however, the songs are treated with all Oberst and Mogis' hard-earned production chops, which by now are mighty indeed. There's filthy electric guitars here, too (something I thought we'd seen the last of after the cleanliness of Wide Awake) and, dare I say it, a real 'rock' attitude. The songs themselves are perhaps not Oberst's finest work, but while they can't hold a candle to the quality of Wide Awake or even those on Lifted, they more than eclipse Cassadaga in terms of punch and weight. All in all, The People's Key is a welcome return to form for the band, and a suitable last hurrah for a great band that will be sorely missed. We can be sure to hear all those involved in a myriad of future projects, but the Bright Eyes ship has sailed its course and while we'll be sorry it's gone, it's high time it was laid to rest.

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