Music Serves the Lyrics in Ambitious Vision: The People’s Key by Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes

By Daniel Garrett

Bright Eyes, The People’s Key
Songs by Conor Oberst, mixed by Mike Mogis
Engineered by Mike Mogis and Andy LeMaster
Produced by Bright Eyes
Saddle Creek, 2011

The work of Conor Oberst’s band Bright Eyes, a group in which different musicians have participated, includes A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997, Letting Off the Happiness, Fevers and Mirrors, Lifted or the Story is in the Soil, I’m Awake It’s Morning, Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, Motion Sickness, Noise Floor, and Cassadaga.  The band is known for introspective but imaginatively inclusive songs, and has a reputation for integrity.  Bright Eyes, a musical group principally identified with singer-songwriter Conor Oberst, includes guitarist and percussionist Mike Mogis, pianist and synthesizer-player Nathaniel Walcott; and its album The People’s Key, its latest and possibly its last album, is rock music of propulsive energy and prominent rhythms, music of the body as well as the mind.

“Firewall,” which follows an idiosyncratic speech, has a moody, groove-laden sound.  The album’s opening spoken word comments—imaginative, perceptive, and wild—have been attributed to Denny Brewer of the band Refried Ice Cream, and he speaks about time, human responsibility, parallel universes, and the lasting nature of evil; and Brewer appears throughout in interludes.  “I do my best to sleep through the caterwaul,” sings Oberst in his distinctive voice—a lisping, low but confidently confiding voice, but it is an assertion we are not required to accept as the whole truth.  Conor Oberst is a young man who desires awareness, even when it is vexing; and his liberal activism indicates he believes there can be a positive response to what is known.  “I’m still angry, with no reason to be,” he admits in the melodious and rollicking “Shell Games,” which declares regret for cruel behavior.  His mood may be dictated by more than narrow personal concerns, but the sometimes cheery music suggests that there are multiple ways of interpreting and living with the complexity of human existence.  The song “Jejune Stars” is dense and fast too.

The composition “Approximate Sunlight,” with lines about time machines and childhood and a reference to a Los Angeles shaman, in which a woman’s voice follows that of Oberst, the woman (Laura Burhenn) saying something about being too young to die, is a piece that might be about memory and grief or about spiritual evolution, as there is a recurring line “now you are how you are when you were.”  There is also a reference to a man—an artist? a lover? a god?—in a house with a tower watching everything.  (The song was preceded by Denny Brewer’s crazy—fantastical or shamanic?—comments about pomegranates and symbols.)

“I had the wildest dream—I was swimming with you,” sings Conor Oberst in the song “Haile Selassie,” which is interesting in its implicit attempt to bridge perspectives, the Ethiopian and Caribbean and American.  Oberst uses some irregular grammar in the song (as in “I seen strange things happen,” which may be in imitation of Caribbean reggae music, a genre containing reverence for the Ethiopian Haile Selassie as a messiah).  There are spiritual themes throughout the work of Conor Oberst, though they are not always the first thing one considers.  In “Haile Selassie,” there is even the line “We are the chosen people,” a line I find hard to hear as one with deep conviction or import, as there are many chosen peoples in the world (people chosen by spiritual belief, by talent, by power and wealth, by beauty, by prejudice).  There are many historical references in “A Machine Spiritual (in the People’s Key),” a song in which I hear a fast southwestern rhythm, a song that makes plain the ambition of Conor Oberst: the attempt to create a contemporary American music with far-reaching appeal and relevance.  Yet it is followed with more of the eccentric speech of Denny Brewer about hearing creation: these are declarations that can be received as delusion or insight, depending on the listener; and they remind one that Oberst’s vision is not common.

The music by Bright Eyes in “Triple Spiral” fairly rampages.  It could be liked by rock music lovers everywhere.  “The currents will carry you along, until you’re just like everyone,” is a thought that is stated in “Beginner’s Mind,” a statement that counts as promise and warning, as comforting or disturbing, depending on who you are.  The search for spiritual enlightenment usually begins with both awareness of who, what, and where one is and then forgetting those same things (and then remembering them again in a different way).  “You’re not unique in dying,” Oberst reminds in the downbeat “Ladder Song,” making references to Jesus and Buddha and the prospect that someone might “kiss the feet of a charlatan for some imagined freedom.”  It can be hard—annoying, dismaying, troubling—to accept that one’s ambitions and hopes, fears and strategies, risks and tragedies, are not new, are merely the latest edition of the human condition, a text written in a common language.  “You’re not alone in anything.  You’re not alone in trying to be,” states Conor Oberst.

There is a rumbling beat and a roll call of people and elements, each given their due, in “One for You, One for Me,” both celebration and lament: “How did we get so far away from us?” and “You and me, you and me, that is an awful lot.”  It is not necessary that there be subsequent spoken word admonitions about enlightenment and mercy.  The lyrics and music are enough—but, it’s possible that the lack of broad and serious public attention inclines ambitious artists to doubt message and method, so that they multiply and intensify emphasis.  Those of us who are paying attention may be too desperately concerned, or share too much of the same education, to judge.  Only time will reveal whether that leads to greatness or its flaw.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Offscreen, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett, who likes jazz, independent rock, and world music, originated two internet logs: one focused on culture and social issues, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader.”  He has been writing a novel, A Stranger on Earth.  Contact: dgarrett31@hotmail or