If you’re reading this, chances are you aren’t new to the whole Bright Eyes thing. You probably aren’t looking to discover your next musical man-crush. What you want to know is what you always want to know when Conor Oberst sees it fit to unleash his latest batch of songs on the world. Is it a hit or a miss? Inspiration or frustration? God knows he’s more than capable of both.
Well, this being the murky world of music reviewing, there’s not really a black and white answer. With Bright Eyes, more than most bands, I guess it’s a question of which version of the band you’re looking for. If you want the straight-up country troubadour Conor sometimes plays, you’re probably looking in the wrong place. There are no Emmylou Harris duets for you here. Ditto, if you yearn for him to revisit his ‘Kid A moment’ Digital Ash In a Digital Urn, you’re probably going to be a bit miffed by the lack of studio trickery – though there are some subtly processed keyboards to enjoy at times here.
The Bright Eyes I’m most keen to hear from again is the one who knocked out the stone-cold classic Lifted in 2002. He was a ramshackle, frayed at the edges sort and he wrote the most mind-bendingly brilliant songs. Well, I’m sort of out of luck too. The messy, undercooked, almost amateurish vibe that gave Lifted its heroic quality seems long gone and he appears less inclined to turn out the rough stuff these days. There are two groups of Oberstians who will be delighted by his latest, though, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fall into both categories as well.
The first is the lyric devourer. Conor has long been one of the most developed, playful writers of his generation and The People’s Key is a tour de force. By turns despairing and disparaging, tender then traumatic – this boy can convey any emotion in a single off-hand couplet. I had a dozen or so examples written down to quote, but I deemed the enterprise irrelevant when I realised I had only listened to one track at that point.
The other satisfied fan will be the one who collects Oberst’s occasional moments of naggingly brilliant songcraft and has been waiting a while for the latest installment. Not the pastiches (great though they are), not the triumphs of creativity over clarity (great though they are). Just the simple melodic gems like Lua, First Day of My Life or Four Winds. There are two here that simply cannot be resisted. Shell Games is a study in fractured intensity and had me grinning like a Cheshire cat within a few bars. Then there’s Beginner’s Mind which begins life as an acoustic singalong and becomes something epic and wonderful.
Conor, you old bastard, you’re never quite the Bright Eyes I want you to be but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Words: Rory Dollard