When I first listened to “Shell Games,” the first single from Bright Eyes’ new album, “The People’s Key” I have to admit I was nervous. Two months prior to the album’s release, I’d not only bought tickets to see Bright Eyes live, but planned an entire trip to Canada around the concert. I knew it was a gamble, especially considering the relative disappointment that “Cassadaga,” their previous album, was. However, my six year adoration of the band outweighed my uncertainty, and I took the risk.
To say I was happy to hear the song come out of my speakers would be an understatement. Ecstatic would be a more fitting word. “Shell Games” was so much more than I’d been hoping for. I instantly had a good feeling about the album, which I proceeded to download right away, while waiting for my copy to arrive in the mail. In that single sitting, I played “Shell Games” four or five more times, growing more and more pleased with it each listen.
In “Shell Games,” frontman Conor Oberst abandons his guitar for a keyboard, playing soulful, poignant chords under the verses. As the song develops, catchy synths and a simple beat build up to a hook you’ll never get out of your head. This is a song to sing along to for sure, but not just because of the fantastic melody — Oberst’s lyrics maintain their personal feel, while still reaching out to everyone who cares to listen. Building up to the final round of the chorus, he sings, “We’ll be everything that we ever need/ everyone on the count of three/ everyone on the count of three/ all together now…” begging listeners to join in.
Like the rest of the album, this song is inarguably a departure from the bands previous work. As confirmed by Oberst, the band chose to move away from their folky, bluegrass inspired roots, and towards a more modern sound. But what is Bright Eyes without the unique folk sound? How else can they stand apart in an ever-growing sea of melodramatic indie bands?
Rest assured: they can. Long time fans will be happy to hear Oberst’s signature wavering vocals, as raw and emotional as they’ve ever been. Beyond that, the songs retain a familiar quality of floating between eerie and despondent, never completely achieving either. Songs such as “Triple Spiral,” are thrown in for good measure but not without care.
Part of what makes this album work so well is its cohesiveness — like many other Bright Eyes albums, there are recurring themes throughout “The People’s Key” that make the album seem like a complete piece, rather than 10 unrelated songs put one after another.
Most prevalent is the Rastafarianism motif, referenced in songs such as “Haile Selassie” and “Jejune Stars.” While each song is fantastic on its own, to truly appreciate the brilliance of “The People’s Key,” I highly recommend you listen to it from start to finish.
On the whole, “The People’s Key” feels nothing less than complete — not a single song sounds like filler, as all are artfully crafted and clearly well thought out. At 10 tracks long, the album is shorter than most, but this is a clear instance where quality was chosen over quantity. Bright Eyes will be touring in support of “The People’s Key” throughout spring, and after their outstanding performance last weekend, I highly recommend checking to see if they’re hitting a city near you. You won’t be disappointed.
Bazarian is a member of the class of 2013.