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Album review: Bright Eyes' 'The People's Key'

February 14, 2011 |  6:05 pm

Bright_eyes_key_240 On his jaunty new single “Shell Games,” Conor Oberst takes a jab at one of his favorite targets in the Bright Eyes catalog — himself. “Death-obsessed, like a teenager. I sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar,” he sings, with irony quotes around “tortured.” “I’m still angry with no reason to be.”

It’s a funny acknowledgement of the criticism that’s chased Oberst ever since he was heralded as Dylan’s teen descendant — namely, that’s he’s one of the most melodramatic and self-mythologizing songwriters in recent pop. But he’s always wrung something universal from that stylized self-reflection with his gift for subtle melody. The problem with much of “The People’s Key,” his first album in four years as Bright Eyes, is that it gets his nuanced formula backward. This album’s spiritual vagaries and self-conscious sound experiments feel unexpectedly impersonal.

No one can expect him to burn through post-adolescent angst forever, and after the orchestral grandeur of 2007’s “Cassadaga,” the Guided by Voices guitar scuzz of “Triple Spiral” and the speed-metal burn of “Jejune Stars” are muscular in ways he hasn’t tried since the punkish fury of his Desaparecidos project. But the underbaked minimalism of “Approximate Sunlight” and lyrical association games of “Haile Selassie” feel like Oberst is hiding from something. “Key” may still sound angry, but Oberst’s wrong on one point — he’s always found true reasons to be before.

— August Brown

Bright Eyes
“The People’s Key”
Saddle Creek
Two and a half stars (Out of four)

 

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