The People's Key

The People's Key

In the wake of Cassadaga, Conor Oberst felt like he needed to step away from Bright Eyes for the first time. “I wanted out of a lot of things in my life after all the touring,” he says. “Part of that had to do with the band, part of it was just life choices. I was ready for something to change and twist the fate.” He’d fallen in love with Mexico after a final Bright Eyes date in its capital city, returning to record his 2008 self-titled solo album in an adobe villa perched on a mountainside in Tepoztlán with The Mystic Valley Band, a group of friends who’d become his backing outfit for two more albums of loose, democratic rock. “It was all analog and just trying to get away from all the things that I had found arduous about the way Bright Eyes records sometimes, spending too much time on things,” he says. “By the time I was ready to come back to Bright Eyes, I really wanted it to be very much about [composer/multi-instrumentalist] Nate [Walcott] and [producer/multi-instrumentalist] Mike [Mogis] and I—equal parts, the three of us. Since we had done the super orchestral thing on Cassadaga, I remember saying to Walcott, ‘Let’s do your thing; let’s do it ourselves. You can write string parts, but just do it all on keyboard, and it’ll be different.’” Recorded back in Omaha, at Mogis’ ARC Studios, The People’s Key pairs feverish New Wave sonics with lyrics that push Oberst’s spiritual curiosities further, into the realm of science fiction. At the time, Oberst and the band thought they were in the process of making a big, shiny, Killers-like pop-rock record—albeit one with references to artificial intelligence (“A Machine Spiritual [In the People’s Key]”), Rastafarianism (“Haile Selassie”), Buddhism (“Jejune Stars”), and extraterrestrial lizard people (“Firewall,” whose wild theories come courtesy of friend Denny Brewer). “Just from the structure of the songs and the melodies, I felt we were going out of our way to make it friendly and accessible, more so than a lot of our other records,” he says. “Lyrically, I’m proud of it because I wanted everything to be triple coded—very, very opaque. I remember trying to say the word ‘I’ as little as possible, which is always a challenge. But I still think there’s a lot of emotion and humanity in the record. With religion of any kind, you start floating into some pretty far-out ideas that aren’t that far off from a science-fiction novel. It seemed to just go with the music that we were writing.” Accessible and inaccessible, The People’s Key is, in Oberst’s mind, Bright Eyes’ most concise record, with shorter song times and a relatively tiny supporting cast. On starlit closer “One for You, One for Me,” he zooms out as far as he ever has, to ask big questions—of self and society, of enlightenment. It’s a long way from the teenage anxieties of his earliest work. “I think it’s one of our better records,” he says. “It’s definitely one that I don’t think you’d probably get a lot of fans voting for as their favorite record or anything. But I think it’s cool. I’m glad it’s part of the catalog.”

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