Conor Oberst went into the new Bright Eyes album with a guiding principle: Less is more. “On [2007’s] Cassadaga, all the sonic real estate was occupied,” says Oberst. “That one felt like it was left in the oven too long. As we were making this record, we tried to remind ourselves: ‘Let’s leave space.’ ”
So for The People’s Key, Bright Eyes’ seventh studio set, Oberst — who made records recently in Texas and Mexico — returned to his hometown of Omaha to record in bandmate Mike Mogis’ studio. Songs such as “Jejune Stars” and “Triple Spiral” condense elements from Oberst’s early, punk-y albums with the rich, melodic sensibility he has developed on his more recent ones. The alt-country vibe of Oberst’s 2008 and 2009 solo LPs is mostly absent, and midtempo tunes like “One for You, One for Me” and “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key)” incorporate sequenced beats and haunting electronics.
The record features guest appearances by pals from Cursive and the Faint (and as usual, Mogis produced the LP). But the standout contributions came from El Paso musician Denny Brewer, a sixtysomething biker and New Age shaman Oberst met while recording in Texas — and who adds mind-bending spoken-word passages. Brewer would pop by the studio and spend hours expounding on his ideas about human nature, alchemy and the Federal Reserve, and Oberst found himself rapt. “A lot of people would write him off as a conspiracy-theory crazy person,” he says. “But then he’d turn a corner and hit on a point that was completely truthful.”
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Oberst also found unexpected inspiration in reggae — not so much the sound but “the lyrics and ideas of redemption and liberation.” On “One for You, One for Me,” he sings, “You and me, that is an awful lie. It’s I and I,” invoking the Rastafarian idea. There’s even a cut named after Haile Selassie. “In Rastafarianism, they’re talking about fighting back against an imperial power with the best tools at their disposal, which are music and soul and weed and community,” he says. “The symbolism in that music seemed very potent to me, and very appropriate.”