Bright Eyes- The People’s Key
Anticipation for albums in the 21st century is a tough thing to buy into. Often too little of a pay off in the end due to leaks and a modern world desperate for a mass opinion. But Bright Eyes is kind of a big deal and Conor Oberst one of the few artists around where anything would be worth the wait.
In “The People’s Key” Conor Oberst has made what could have been a completely innaccessible album with references to reptilians, Rasta Farian culture and dialect, Tesla, spiritualism, time travel, The Sumerian Tablets and Ancient Greece but ends up making one that seems as perfect to the casual listener as it does to those who search through every phoneme squeezing out every drop of meaning from his lyrics. Here you’ve got a whole cellar full of meaning.
Feeling familiar yet impossibly fresh and perhaps more insistant there seems to be more symbolism, metaphor and meaning crammed into every phrase. Where Conor’s Bright Eyes albums feel like your favourite cocktail at the end of a long week, made by the one barman who knows exactly how you like it, you would notice if he made it a little stronger than usual but you wouldn’t complain, you’d just assume he thinks you need it rather than thinking it might be the last drink he’ll make there so he’s using up all he’s got.
“Love has always been the message”
Opening up and dotted around the album are musings from 60 year old biker, shaman, guitarist and singer of Refried IceCream, Denny Brewer. One of Conor’s “protegees” of Team Love whose opinions Conor became increasingly enrapped by the more time he spent around the studio with him and in terms of ways to “ward off casual listeners” as Oberst puts it, this is one of the easier listening.
He brings up charisma (although stumbling over the word) harking back to a Conor lyric from “To all the lights in the windows” “That’s the thing about charisma, it makes everyone believe” and it’s compelling stuff as Brewer’s argument about Hitler is the same argument people make about Jesus but when the subject of bloodlines comes up people tend to take a step back. Nowadays most people are wary of investing in the reptilian theory, as popularised by David Icke, as it does seem a little incomprehensible but it’s always interesting listening to other people’s ideas especially when they clearly believe in it.
Firewall in itself is gorgeous and perhaps the best opener to a Bright Eyes album to date. The guitar is languid and sparse acting as the beat, making Conor’s poignant lyricism and mood setting elocution stand out all the more. As the track goes on the drums are just incredible, at first underscoring some lines before battling for the limelight making for an epic climax.
Lyrically it’s flawless, expressing ideas brilliantly; here mainly about death and the afterlife with talk of burning sage to keep away the spirits yet saying if he was certain about where he would go after death he’d go in an instant.
The refrain at the end is the first reference (by Conor) to Rasta Fari, this being part of the dialect. He makes what are essentially english words sound like a mystical foreign language which in a sense they are but in the same way not at all. In the native tongue “me” is replaced by “i” with the phrase “seen by I and I” meaning seen by God and everyone.
“I’m still angry with no reason to be”
While we’re on the subject of meaning I’ll just get out of the way that a shell game is like the ball and cup game you see where there’s no chance of the person winning. The meaning here is that the rest of the common consensus of world opinion acts as the scam artist and his posse standing over you affecting your confidence and making you, the mark, go against what you believe to be right.
Shell games was one of the tracks released through the website early in the year, musically it sounds like it could be a British 80’s pop song and in terms of the vocal delivery is actually quite upbeat by his standards, but that’s where the genius of his words comes into play to contradict everything that a casual listener might think about the song.
Strangely, for a Bright Eyes song, it pretty much has a chorus. I say pretty much as it’s just as close as you’re going to get. “Here it comes that heavy love…”
Like Jenny Lewis’ Rabbit Fur Coat this seems to touch upon Conor’s rise to prominence at such a fragile age before never dropping from the pedestal to deal with the usual stuff you do around that age and then finding that he was now able to live how he wanted to and no longer wanting for anything but still feeling like there had to be more.
There’s debate over whether he references all his other Bright Eyes albums in this song and I’d like to think it’s true and in a way it’s almost too perfect not to be…
“The fireworks (Letting off the happiness), The vanity (Fevers and Mirrors), The circuit board (digital ash), The city Streets (I’m wide awake it’s morning), shooting star // swaying palm tree (Cassadega).”
“To the place that I think of so often
that I never mention,
The one that the voice in the back of my head tells me I don’t deserve”.
Starting off Jejune Stars are huge rhythmic, what sound like electronic drums but perhaps due to the underlying guitar, which then make way for a torrent of views, life experiences and statements that to anyone else would be a stream of consciousness impossible to put to music, this is another level.
Firstly the superficial, it’s a catchy song . O.k now that’s out of the way; the “umbrella…” parts suggest that if life is all about collecting as many experiences as possible then why do we shelter ourselves from them. He says that inside is full of the past and nostalgia but outside is full of life and new beginnings and the fondest memories aren’t of the pictures hung on the walls but moments that were only captured in your mind that fire, water or anything you’ve done since can’t take away from you.
You remember when Conor referenced Tim Kasher in “Nothing gets crossed out” I wonder whether this again is in reference to those that came up with him, saying that they never really completed their childhood and were reluctant to have it taken away.
The little snippet at the end is about vibrationism, it’s a powerful theory that takes away suggested meaning in your life and replaces it with understanding of physical potency. A friend of mine was taken by it, I don’t get it.
“Now you are how you were when you were real.”
Approximated Sunlight is about the effect that belief has on your mindstate, how you can overcome reality by following a particular belief but at the same time taking away from your life because it narrows your view, meaning you miss out on other positive influences. It’s a commentary on the majority of the western world, how are we supposed to form our own beliefs if we have no time to ourselves? That’s why you need the media, religious groups and those who do have the time to tell you what to think.
As seems to be a persistant feature on this album he references chldhood or innocent views of reality and how modern life can force you to go back to your first instinct no matter how childish it seems. Closing the cupboard door, hiding under the covers, believing the unbelievable simply because you do.
The track plays like a cassette player with low batteries, slowing down the tempo and stetching out the vocals into a uncharacteristic harsh delivery. That is to say it’s amazing.
“I’ve seen stranger things, man”
Haile Selassi was Ethopia’s last emperor and though you can probably read alot about his life and effect on modern culture particularly in Africa, I think the reason for the references to him is due to the belief within the Rasta Fari movement that he is the reincarnation of God. This is due to a passage in the bible which proclaims “Ethiopia shall soon stretch her arms unto God”, though I’m sure there’s more reasoning behind it than just that…
Anyway the line “I’ve seen stranger things man” I think is the situation of someone telling you their deepest and most extreme beliefs and expecting you to be shocked by them but finding you open to the idea due to not having found ultimate meaning yourself.
Sure that sounds kind of high brow but it’s the same as the first time you meet the person you’re meant to be with and finding it strange how well you get on and seem to have shared experiences and rather than dismissing it as a perculiar coincidence think, true love? Why not.
“The people’s key ringing through arena seats”
The people’s key is G major, so called for a number of debateable reasons but the least poetic and most sensible is that it’s the most frequently used key across classical and popular music, mainly due to ease.
There are a few references to Hitler on the album, not as a person but as an idea. Here it’s saying that 1. Hitler (and every other person) used to be a child, not thinking of socialism, communism, racism, war, money, or anything that corrupts adult minds. It’s probably something people don’t think about that often but basically these people used to be kids, the world’s done something to them to make them think the way they do, it’s not something they’re born with. Unless he was a crack baby, yeah maybe Hitler was a crack baby…
Secondly, that no matter what your dreams are- they’re not all you dream about. The reference to Eva Braun’s hair is the obvious one that Hitler shall we say, had a “thing” for blondes and she just wanted to be appealing to her partner. Likewise Hitler, when he wasn’t thinking of the things that made him famous, his mind would be blank and able to think about anything. I think the commentary here is that sometimes when you take something so far, it’s hard to go back.
Strangely the musical references in this song are almost second to the more abstract themes here, it’s coupled with the dialogue at the end about orchestration backing up Conor’s comment about the cyclical model and how it’s not so much decided what you’re going to do but it’s near impossible to deviate from it to such an extent that it would have a bearing on the rest of life and time.
“That’s the problem, an empty sky.
I fill it up with everything that’s missing from my life”
The triple spiral is a celtic symbol and from its discovery its meaning has only been speculated on but of course this has led to people either believing one thing or another rather than being open to possibilities. In terms of a song title, it’s pretty poignant. The song seems to be indebted to the three realms of land, sea and sky, the line “three worlds at once that blend together” making this pretty obvious and nothing else seems to contradict it.
Once more it’s about wanting to believe but this time taking on the realisation that you can’t rely on higher powers to guide you, “How sad it is to know i’m in control” and though most people believe this, once you realise it things seem a little more futile.
Early on it’s very reminiscent of the kind of song that Conor was indulging in during his time with Monsters of Folk but it takes on a life of its own once the miniscule female vocals, reverb and experimentation that is imperceivable early on, fight to get in the spotlight.
“You know what made you infamous to them, don’t you?
You keep starting over”
Beginner’s mind is about deciding your own path in life and how you shouldn’t be made to take a certain path but take your time and choose your own. Time, experiences and other’s opinions take away from your own views and that goes back to earlier themes in the album but developed upon by suggesting that it’s all transient you might as well choose to go against everything everyone else says.
It would be an extreme view years ago, but nowadays we breed generations of cynics who will go against other people just because they have the power to. Through freedom of speech and expession. That world view can become so engrained on you that it shows in every aspect of you making you less appealing to the mass population, and while you’re fighting against the tide though you might find a few others to fight the battle with you it is, unfortunately, one that is impossible to win. Eventually the tide will wash over you and make you like everyone else, every now and then you’ll see someone who still has some fight but know that eventually they’ll be the same as you.
“You’re not alone in anything”
I think ladder song is about how it’s expected that, before there can be a universal consciousness everyone must experience the worst case scenario and fight for themselves, feeding off the land the way nature intended. Once all energies are focused on the same goal and have forgotten what it’s like to live for posession that’s when the new age will begin where beauty, such as the sun will be appreciated, profoundly, for what it is.
A lot of energy these days is put into trying to cut yourself off from everyone else and the tone here is in keeping with what Conor said his inspiration for this album was before hand (walk into a room and everyone is cut off, looking at computer screens, headphones in etc) and no one can say you’re wrong in living that way because so is everyone else. Yet it doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind that even 50 years ago this wasn’t the case, things have changed and in our ignorance we think it’s for the better but when you think about it- how can it be?
“That’s love, you know- compassion, or- what do you call it?”
Once we’ve been around as long as we’re meant to, in the end we are left with our experiences, some good, some bad. Here it’s both sides divvying up the good and the bad between each other, accepting that there’s nothing you can do about it there’s always going to be good and bad and no matter whether you have more good or more bad experiences by the end of it you’ll be unrecognisable from the person you started off as and you can’t say to anyone else, partners, friends or musicians that they’ve changed because hopefully, you have too.
The previous paragraph was about Bright Eyes. If this is the end, it’s the perfect finale.