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  • Writer's pictureTownes Genoves

Coming to Terms With The People’s Key

The People’s Key is the 7th studio album from Nebraskan indie, folk, singer/songwriter and sad music band, Bright Eyes. The band was formed in 1995 by songwriter Connor Oberst and later joined by multi-instrumentalists Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott, and otherwise consists of a revolving door of touring musicians. They are most likely my favorite band of all time and definitely released my favorite album of all time with 2005’s indie-folk masterpiece, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.


After 2012, and the release of The People’s Key, the band went on hiatus with no sign of return until cryptic pictures of sight charts, the announcement of a new album called Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was in 2020, and corresponding reunion shows at the Hollywood Palladium in May of that year (which I had tickets to). Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, that was postponed until the official tour in 2022. I was lucky enough to see them live at The Chicago Theater in march and will be seeing them later this summer in Portland. The show, as expected, was incredible and the band was playing with the kind of synergy one would expect from a group of musicians that have been performing together for 20+ years, led by the greatest songwriter of this generation.


 The one thing that I didn’t expect from the show is how many songs they would play from The People’s Key and the positive reception that the crowd had to those tracks. I have always seen that record as kind of the black sheep of Bright Eyes’ discography. The album’s focus is on more straight forward indie rock and power pop instrumentals, and jettisons the alt country and indie folk balladry that their last record Cassadaga was moving towards. Despite initially not fully appreciating the record, I have always enjoyed key tracks like “Jejune Stars” and “Ladder Song.” The former of which really feels like the proof of concept for the whole record with its blast beat intro leading into a song that sounds equally like The Cars and The Strokes, with one of the catchiest choruses the band has ever done. “Ladder Song” is the closest the record gets to feeling like classic Fevers and Mirrors Bright Eyes with its stark piano instrumentation and Connor lamenting about death and specifically the concept of growing up and the uncertainty of your future. The lyrics feel like new territory for the band, ending on an almost optimistic note on the line “You’re not alone in anything, You’re not alone in trying to be,” assuring the listener that everyone has to struggle in the same way when living life. 

The other biggest song from the album, “Shell Games,” took a while to grow on me and to this day honestly feels like the closest thing Bright Eyes has made to a pop song with its new wave synth melodies, group vocals and chorus of “Here it come that heavy love.” Despite these elements I think I’ve really come to appreciate this song and what it means for the album as a whole. “Shell Games” feels like a genuine, emotional step forward for the band, learning to reach out to others to “share in the load,” as Connor says.


The rest of the album feels like it shares in that cautious optimism and shared human experience. The entire record is tied together with recordings of a man describing what sounds like ancient aliens or lizard people coming and enslaving humankind, all between religious conspiracy and ideas of a super-universe. I think that helps not only give many moments on this album an almost otherworldly atmosphere, but also paints a picture of someone so appalled by crimes of humanity. Whether it be average human stupidity or unfathomable death and genocide, he fabricates a narrative shifting blame off of real life human monsters. The other side of that story is what Connor and the band are proposing: that people are most powerful when together they are able to group up and share experiences of healing or push against the horrifying conditions people impose upon each other. Given Conner’s strong opposition against the far-right pro-war stance in America during the 2000s, and his vocal hatred of The Bush Administration, it’s not a surprise he would take a philosophical stance like this.


The album ends on an extremely high note with the triumphant “One for You, One for Me.” When I saw this song live Connor described it as one of the only real songs he has ever written, and I can see why he said that. The song is lyrically sprawling with its mentions of billionaires, the ruling class and the struggle. The fight to find a peaceful moment among the fury of the world around you really resonates with me and, I imagine, all the other people who enjoy this record. The final moments of the song and of The People’s Key, consist of the conspiracy theorist from the beginning in an interview talking about how true enlightenment can only come from knowledge and showing mercy to yourself and others.   


I think I finally see why other fans of this band hold this record in such high regard. This album feels like growing up and learning empathy in the face of hardship. That when faced with “heavy love” or the endless ladder of human suffering the best thing you can do is reach out your hand and be willing to get a lift.

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