On keys to open secret doors, and other teenagerhood nonsense

I clearly remember downing a plastic bottle full of gin and tonic in the bitter cold of Austria’s winter. Feet in the snow, dirty jeans, more probably than not a band t-shirt, an overcast sky. We giggled, faces hidden by the water vapour coming out of our mouths. My hands felt raw and numb. Our names were ticked off a guestlist and we threw backpack and jackets into the merch stand. We pushed into the purring audience until we got to the very front, right on time for Rilo Kiley and Bright Eyes. I’ll never forget that feeling of excitement.

2011 is dawning and one of the bands that opened a door into music for me just released a new record; no matter how hard I try to fight it off, there’s a constant feeling of great expectations anytime anyone speaks of a new Conor Oberst release. But the excitement is different. What I felt in 2004, when there were rumours of a Bright Eyes album coming out, is gone. In the same way that I simply can’t stay up all night with a bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other, passing out on someone’s bed or in a corner, waking up among strangers, smeared make-up and unwashed hair and dancing to punk rock and and and… Bright Eyes might be a phase that has come and gone. And though I am “growing old and growing up” (according to the Desaparecidos), I can’t conceive of Conor Oberst ever writing about anything that isn’t drinking, passing out somewhere, dirty love, blood, sadness enhanced by alcohol, self-pity.

The only question I have to myself is, “Why?” Maybe because it feels rewarding to know that you’ve survived something and managed to move on. Or maybe that lifestyle still has a certain glow, a certain something I am desperately attracted to. Or, simply, maybe it’s harder than I thought to leave everything behind and know that nothing will be the same ever again.

The People’s Key starts off with a voice recording so typical of Conor Oberst it hurts (just think of the faked interview in An Attempt to Tip the Scales, of the nonsense at the end of Let’s Not Shit Ourselves, of the Russian vocabulary list in Neely O’Hara); it is however much less abstract than that and is a means to an end: to preachifying-ly introduce the topic of spirituality and mysticism, already painted roughly in  Cassadaga, and of an upcoming Apocalypse. From that moment on, the album takes the listener along patchy roads of a messy, seemingly experimental journey – apart from the radio-friendly first single Shell Games and the Ladder Song which caught my ear for more than 30 seconds, the only relief found while listening is, ironically, in the entrancing sermon of Randy Brewer. I might be a bit harsh and this album might be a grower, but listening to the People’s Key in an unbiased way is, to me, impossible. Though a new fan might find it almost refreshing, coming across it after albums and collaborations close to perfect (Oh Holy Fools and Read Music/Speak Spanish, to name just a few) is, to say the least, highly disappointing. To drown the good, solidly lyrical Conor under a mass of unfocused pop melodies is to give the coup de grâce to the already agonizing Bright Eyes; his music was more mature when, in 1995 with his voice having not yet broken, he whined about Space Invaders and a Lava Monster.

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