The intriguing if uneven The People's Key may or may not be the final Bright Eyes release—Conor Oberst seems uncertain himself—but it nicely charts Oberst's trajectory: Specifically, it displays Oberst's shunning of his characteristic solipsism.
Oberst's squeamish, personal and primal lyrics have given way to more universal concerns, which is admirable, but his approach—a kind of New Age morality—is not. Most divisive is Oberst's display of his embraced mysticism via Denny Brewer, whose musings throughout The People's Key can likely be heard in any freeway underpass across America.
That said, when all the miscues are bracketed, the album succeeds, primarily because Oberst is currently writing some of the strongest, most melodic songs of his career. Opener "Firewall" trails a guitar figure—which sounds remarkably similar to that iconic guitar in Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle"—to an explosive, soaring conclusion, packed with strings and an electronic din. "Shell Games" is a pleasant, celebratory jam; "Triple Spiral" is a fun, chugging guitar rocker; and "Ladder Song" is a naked and ethereal ballad.
Oberst's successful transformation from a folkie to a rollicking Americana ripper (from I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning to Outer South) has inexplicably been abandoned here for his less-flattering, tetchy incarnation. Yet the cloudy synths that aid the airy closer "One for You, One for Me" and the watery electronics on the otherwise middle-of-the-road "A Machine Spiritual (in the People's Key)" both work quite effectively. It's an imperfect release, but that's been Bright Eyes' mantra from the start.