A friend of mine and I have the same argument every time we decide to listen to Bright Eyes together. I always want to listen to “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning”, while she’s a bigger fan of “Digital Ash in a Digital Urn”. We usually spend a few minutes listing the brilliant qualities of our chosen favorites, but never really insult the opposing record, as both are great works on the whole. The argument is really an argument over what sort of band Bright Eyes fundamentally is, whether they’re folk rock or emo-influenced indie rock. The band’s newest album, “The People’s Key,” gives a definite answer: both.
The album begins oddly, with the strange ramblings of a preacher who reappears talking about alternate universes and dimension. This speech fades into “Firewall,” which seems rather like the typical Bright Eyes fare, a la “Digital Ash,” if a little heavier. By the very next song, however, it is evident something different is happening here. “Shell Games” is a perfect example of what “The People’s Key” seems to be all about, taking everything Bright Eyes has done up to this point and continuing and improving upon that. “Shell Games” manages to keep the emotional melodrama Bright Eyes fans seem to love, while sounding like something you would hear on the radio.
This shift continues in “Approximate Sunlight,” which is about something Conor Oberst never seems to have touched on before: reality. With “The People’s Key,” Bright Eyes has gone “post-everything,” post-punk, post-emo, post-pop, post-indie, in a way that few other bands would be able to imagine doing so successfully.
It would take more than a few hundred words to write a thorough explanation of how every song on this album goes to places Bright Eyes has never ventured before, but the last song on the album, “One for You, One for Me,” lays it out well in the title.
Oberst has said that it is unlikely that he’ll make another Bright Eyes album, and what better way to go out than on top? If this really is the last Bright Eyes album, then they won’t be remembered as the band you have to be ashamed to like for their place as the quintessential emo band.