The Bob Dylan comparisons that have fluttered noisily around Conor Oberst—and by extension, his signature brand Bright Eyes—have receded in recent years. But their memory remains, as Oberst, despite efforts to tone down and refine his sound, remains stubbornly hung up on the same methods, tics, and fixations. Dylan himself has gone through enough different incarnations to supply a line of action figures, and he’s still morphing: into a sinister but charming radio host, aging raconteur, and creepy Christmas-carol bard. The primary difference is that, always cold and detached, Dylan never seemed to believe in anything while Oberst believes in too much: politics, rock n’ roll, the continuing viability of his own emotional disasters.
This overflowing sense of self has done more to define Oberst than anything else, and it continues on The People’s Key, spilling into the contemporary malaise he invokes and the often brilliant poetic associations of which he’s sometimes capable. It makes his music adolescent and ragged no matter how mature it seems on the surface. All this is established through a tone-setting, curious bit of quotation, a slowed-down, atmospherics-backed excerpt from a television preacher that shifts from religious doom-saying into an unhinged invocation of Sumerian lizard men. It suggests the album’s theme of religion gone weird without illuminating it.
Oberst has been employing this kind of hollow trick for years, most heavily on his Desaparecidos side project, where radio and infomercial chatter served as backup for the raging anti-commercial angst on display. This album is far more measured, and its dissatisfaction is manifested limply. “Firewall,” which invokes Internet-age dread though holograms that look just like people and other technological signifiers, reads as creaky rhetoric that says nothing, simply squeezing out more modern-sounding angst. This continues throughout the album, filled with facile imagery like snuff films shown on jumbotrons and blank references to Rastafarianism.
Oberst’s songs at least retain the ability to sound firm even when their insides are mushy. Songs like “A Triple Spiral” and “One for You, One for Me” work as halfway decent rock tracks with a better lyrical structure than most, despite their flaws. The even mix of country and electronic influence is still in place, retaining the template from 2007’s Cassadaga, probably his best recent album. The most frustrating thing is the persistent feeling that Oberst is capable of more, of actual growth and real poetry, rather than settling for differing permutations of his past mistakes.