There are albums whose lyrics may be the most interesting part. I am not saying that the melodies of the new Bright Eyes’ album, ‘The People’s Key’ are not interesting, they are full of catchy and electro-folk-pop parts, shining melodies and earworm choruses. But when I first listened to the album, and heard all these intricate and multilayered lyrics, I wondered what he was talking about,… and I am still wondering.
There are several recurrent themes in ‘The People’s Key’, the theme of love and how to progress toward it, the theme of time and future – ‘Used to dream of time machines/Now it’s been said we’re post-everything’ as he sings in ‘Approximate Sunlight’ – the theme of eternal life and starting over (Ray Kurzveil’s theory of singularity Conor was talking about in all his interviews), the theme of going back to an inner childhood to find one’s true nature, like he proclaims with fervor in the sun-drenched ‘Beginner’s Mind’.
Isn’t it what the spoken-words-guy, Denny Brewer, says all over the album? However, I am not sure to understand the point of his vague half-accomplished-pseudo-explanatory rants, when he is dropping famous historic characters’ names like Einstein, Tesla, and Hitler in the same tirade, mixed with tales of pomegranate with syllables’ frequencies, or reptilian beings coming from other dimensions and landing in the Garden of Eden.
From the start, Conor Oberst is expecting a lot from his listeners, as ‘Firewall’, the opening track, is probably one of the most cryptic song of the album. After the long Denny Brewer’s monologue, the slow guitar progression of the mysterious tune goes from what it seems to be an evocation of delusion to an avalanche of colorful images of grey macaw named Jules Verne, Martian trinkets, plastic Apollos, flat cherry cola running in his veins, Lion of Judah painted on a side of a motorbike, cold Ivory towers, toasts to the Caesars, slow bang, diving bell, firewall into Heaven…. It goes on and on.
But Conor sounds so angry in the beginning, especially with ‘Shell Games’, a key song of the album, released for free about 2 months ago. ‘Shell Games’, with its evasive self-reflection (doesn’t the first verse evoke some of his previous albums?… I mean ‘Took the fireworks and the vanity’ could work for ‘Fevers and Mirrors’, and the ‘Shooting star, swaying palm tree’ is literally the cover of ‘Cassadaga’) could well be a meticulous meditation about his role as artist, who is always laying his work ‘at the arbiter’s feet’, and who has the impossible burden to redo the same task every time, like Sisyphus, named later in the song. And when he says ‘I was dressed in white, touched by something pure/Death obsessed like a teenager/Sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar/I’m still angry with no reason to be’ he seems to make fun of the Bright Eyes’ image, the eternally young wide-eye guy, carrying his dark lock of hair in front of his face, constantly full of rage and sorrow.
You can hear a lot of this rage in the melody of the song, which runs with a fast piano and synth and makes you see fireworks when he sings ‘Everyone, on the count of three!’
But the rage is not enough, as the task may be too hard for the artist Conor, who carries a heavy love/load, and the whole song turns around his refusal to play because it’s a shell game that he will lose every time, and his admiration for the mythological hero finding freedom in his absurd task.
I have found some of the lines ‘Now that’s the only place to be free […] Distorted facts, I could never cope’ were reusing the same imagery than Elliott Smith’s ‘A distorted reality’s now a necessity to be free’; if it is a pure coincidence, it’s a good one, and if it is an homage, I’m totally fine with it.
‘Jejune stars’ is a sort of triumphant hymn with again plenty of synth and fast beats, as a certain sense of emergency and rage run along the music. The song goes all over the metaphoric range, first talking about love as a solution ‘love is the way to return/To that place that I think of so often’, then taking the naturalistic approach with the DNA-alluding line ‘And the code we inherit, the basis, the essence of life’ – a code he is referring to again in ‘A Machine Spiritual’ – or with our true-watery-nature-reminding line ‘Is it true what we’re made of?/Why do I hide from the rain?’, a naturalistic idea that culminates with ‘We are Jejune stars’. He is even taking the religious approach in the same song with lines like ‘Come fire, come water, come karma’.
The album is full of these religious and Biblical references, and ‘Haile Selassie’, with its Rastafarian theme, may be the most obvious of all. The song, with its vibrating and bouncing rhythm and its hope of the ‘Omega day’ which is ‘Too good to be true’, may be Conor’s desire to present a Messianic figure without turning to the most obvious one. A Messiah that he denies nevertheless vividly in ‘Triple Spiral’, a bold and electric address sent to ‘an empty sky’ that he had filled ‘up with everything that’s missing from his life’. He ignores the Messiah once again in ‘Ladder Song’, as he sings on a tearing and deserted piano, that ‘No one knows where the ladder goes’, a straightforward reference to Jacob’s ladder leading to heaven in the Bible, still tempted to succumb to beliefs when facing death ‘I wanna fly in your silver ship/Let Jesus hang and Buddha sit’,… a line which sounds a little scientologist to me.
‘A spiritual machine’ may be the most Kurzveil-theme-inspired song, with his we’re-starting-over theme, and his black machine/piano, meaning the people’s key, the common tuning for everyone, ‘Ringing filling everything’.
And could the last bipolar song ‘One for You, One for Me’ gathers in one all the different themes of the album, switching for one side to its opposite at each line, from the good to the evil, from life to death, from the yin to the yang, and finally ending with ‘I and I’, as I with God-in-me, probably another Rastafarian reference, or could it be the Dylan song?
Conor is at his best when he stays into a poetic self-absorbed imagery, like in ‘Shell Games’, but I’m less enthusiastic when he tries to incorporate all this new-age-pseudo-science-fiction imagery, mixed with all kinds of religious references. You can be lost very fast in the meanders of his lyrics.
But if we are ‘Jejune stars’, immature stardust hiding our true nature, I’m not sure where Conor finds the solution if he finds one. The album closes up with this Brewer’s monologue about love,.. and mercy, and love as an enlightenment-revelation may well be the solution Conor proposes at the end of this long existential crisis, but some listeners may have already given up in front of this bric-à-brac collection of all-over-the-place spirituality, and half-accomplished or sometimes borderline silly philosophy.
It’s the music, stupid
a restless and fearless freak show
Eminem and Calvin couldn’t move Bey
summer’s entertainment is rewarded
compares the end of a romance to the end of life
House pure and simple
lays down his claim to being a giant
Elvis Costello And The Imposters and Nick Lowe And Los Straightjackets At The Rooftop At Pier 17, Thursday, August 11th, 2022
embraces the moment with a big smile