It’s been almost a decade since Bright Eyes’ Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, the epic 2002 album that established Conor Oberst as the pain-strumming poet of emo and the newest of the New Dylans. But the 22-year-old hadn’t asked for either gig. So Oberst spent the 2000s abjuring big statements, choosing to scale down his sound, bum around North America and try to figure himself out. “I’ve taken some comfort . . . ” he sings on Bright Eyes’ first album in nearly four years, “knowing I don’t have to be an exception.”
The latest dispatch from Planet Conor weaves the weird knowledge he’s accrued over the years into a rich, sprawling, fragmented record. It’s got elements of the hazy synth rock of 2005’s Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and echoes of his two recent, rootsy solo albums. But being Bright Eyes again mainly means a break from Solo Conor’s rustic tranquility and a return to the bruised- angel indie rock of his earliest albums. Oberst brings it all back home by recording in his native Omaha with Bright Eyes’ other two permanent members — multi-instrumentalist Nate Walcott and producer Mike Mogis — plus local pals from Cursive and the Faint.
Oberst’s lyrics explore a mysticism he’s been messing with since 2007’s Cassadaga. On “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key),” he’s a futurist seer, tweeting happily from the end of time: “History bows and it steps aside/In the jungle there are columns of purple light/We are starting over.” The album is full of nods to Rastafarianism, including references to “one love” and Zion. Oberst says he loves reggae’s symbolism and anti-imperialist spirit, and throughout People’s Key he uses Rasta vibrations as an emotional power source. On “Haile Selassie,” through a haze of epic images, the supernatural force “calling me home like Haile Selassie” ends up being a girl: “I was swimming with you in that cenote the heavens made with black fire.”
Oberst’s newfound jones for Jah isn’t even the trippiest thing about The People’s Key. Several tracks feature the spoken-word ramblings of Randy Brewer, a Texas musician Oberst met on the road. Brewer’s sermonettes — about the road to enlightenment, our alien ancestors and time as a construct — work surprisingly well leading into the gently lifting orchestrations of “Firewall” or closing out the prayerful electro-folk of “One for You, One for Me.”
Giving a chunk of your record over to some random old-timer’s bullshit is a classic Oberst move, a way of undercutting the aura of importance people have foisted on his music since he was in high school. It’s especially shrewd because The People’s Key contains some of his most weighty songwriting — the head-clearing clamor of “Haile Selassie” or the somber “Approximate Sunlight,” where Oberst ruefully sings, “It’s been said we’re post-everything.” His greatest quality is that he refuses to be post-anything. He manages to be everything at once: folkie and punk, old soul and eternal boy, high-plains drifter and hipster heartthrob. He’s busy being born again every time he strums a chord.