Conor Oberst may have discovered the most compelling evangelist for the secret-lizard-people theory this side of David Icke. At the start of Bright Eyes’ latest, in a gravelly voice and conversational tone, Refried Ice Cream singer Denny Brewer spins a tale of biblically presaged reptilian aliens before hitting a thesis few could disparage. “Love’s always been the message,” he says. “It’s just—circumstances happen, right?” Crucially, it’s easy to imagine Brewer convincing the impressionable.
That’s just the first of The People’s Key’s many flirtations with universe-encasing concepts, from the Rastafarian “I and I” to Zen Buddhism’s “beginner’s mind” to the deity-like statures of Hitler and Caesar in their times. But while Oberst once offhandedly disparaged religion and figureheads—“When The President Talks To God” was only slightly kinder to God than it was to the president—he now approaches them with a pining curiosity that at first seems so omnivorous as to border on dilettantism. But The People’s Key isn’t about gods; it’s about the shared purposelessness that leads humans to invent gods. And Oberst, whose poetic gifts have never really included subtlety, gives it all away with one line. “That’s the problem, an empty sky—I fill it up with everything that’s missing from my life,” he sings on “Triple Spiral.”
Fitting his all-encompassing theme, Oberst has crafted hooky anthems with skins varying from folk-infused new wave (“Shell Games”) to power pop (“Triple Spiral”) to perky trip-hop (“One For You, One For Me”). Most tracks further his evolution from wordy bedroom savant to straight-up rock singer, and in leaving behind his confessional tone, he leaves behind his trademark gut-punch, scrawl-the-lyrics-on-your-forearms moments. Instead, he delivers a truer, less emotional, album-length confession about wanting to believe the unbelievable, and loving others for wanting the same.