Being a fan of Conor Oberst is like being a fan of Morrissey. When you were both young, he changed your life ("Hatful of Hollow"). Shortly after the solo career debuted, the shame slunk in ("Kill Uncle"), the proselytizing ceased, the relationship became closeted. Eventually, maybe in your 30s, the consistency and sharpness of his lyricism dawns on you ("You Are the Quarry"). You become aware of what a steady companion he's been even as you put away childish things -- and realize, with genuine surprise, that he didn't turn out to be one of them.
Oberst fans are just about to reach that realization, guided in their first steps by this surprising, grandiose album, available today (Oberst's 31st birthday).
The mythologized singer-songwriter has returned to his trio, the vaunted Bright Eyes, after swearing them off and focusing on separate projects for a few years (a solo record, the Mystic Valley Band, the Monsters of Folk with M. Ward). Opening with some overcooked, "Ancient Aliens"-worthy theorizing from Denny Brewer, a friend and singer for El Paso's psychedelic Refried Ice Cream, "The People's Key" operates as a concept album about existential crises, knitting together random meaning-of-life musings, many of which wind up conflated with considerations of not only his own mortality but his career's. "Holding our tears as we flip the album / What if this leads to ruin? / You got a soul, use it / All this despair forgiven," he wails in "Haile Selassie" (one of several Rastafarian references on the album). Elsewhere: "You're not unique in dying," "Death-obsessed like a teenager," "I'll die young at heart," "Will I know when it's finally done? / This whole life's a hallucination" -- all of which he doesn't deny is just "a cocktail napkin epitaph / some psycho-babble telegram."
The folksy leanings of Oberst's recent forays are largely abandoned on "The People's Key" -- though the title could be a tip of the hipster hat to folk icon Pete Seeger, who still calls out tunes in concert by saying, "Let's do it in G, the people's key!" -- in favor of a broad, often psychedelic palate and some of the boldest creative decisions this trio has made since 2005's "Digital Ash in a Digital Urn." That record's electronic noodling reasserts itself here, not always to great effect, but nothing about "The People's Key" suggests repetition, recycling or old tricks. As the lyrics grow more sober, Bright Eyes' inherent melodrama transfers to the music, which lurches and distorts and often swirls around in a kind of fever dream. The obvious prog-rock ambition never quite completes the sale, but the occasional pop hooks -- the lively, jaunty "Jejune Stars," the Weezer-ish grind of "Triple Spiral" -- are sharp, serrated and sink deep. If anything, "The People's Key" will put to rest such nonsense comparisons about Oberst being some new Dylan and fuel the idea that Bright Eyes is the new Cure.