Depending where you look, it may seem like times are tough for earnest, NPR-approved peddlers of white-boy, guitar-based indie rock. A trip to the more music-obsessed corners of the internet, those occupied largely by music critics and the people who love/hate them, will tell you that we've grown tired of their acoustic guitars and their navel-gazing and their general, unforgivable blandness. We've moved on. We mostly like James Blake now, I think.
But if you take a look outside into the real world—ironically, the same real world indie-baiting, pop-leaning critics constantly tell us is so important—you will see a very different picture: The Decemberists scored a number one album a few weeks ago, selling 93,567 copies of The King is Dead in its first week (which is still the highest one-week total for any record so far this year), and then they sold out three straight nights at the Beacon Theater; Iron and Wine played a sold out show at Radio City Music Hall; Fleet Foxes have two coming up at the United Palace Theater, not to mention what will likely be some pretty impressive sales totals for their much anticipated sophomore full-length due in a couple months.
(Oh, and a little side note: on Sunday night, just before we went to print, the Arcade Fire won the fucking grammy for Album of the Year. )
This brings us, finally, to Bright Eyes. They too have a pair of sold-out Radio City Music Hall shows coming up, and even though they've done very little in terms of promotional campaigns, their new album, The People's Key, will likely fair very well in the sales department. Does any of this mean it's any good, though? Well, no, not exactly.
It's a strange album, not particularly in line with Conor Oberst's shakier, more melodramatic early work, or his politically awakened middle-period, or even, for that matter, the armchair philosophizing of his more recent solo material. Instead, we get something that sits squarely in the middle, offering elements of every facet of his career, but lacking the punch that was present when he was focused on one sound in particular. This has always been one of his greatest strengths—this ability to dedicate himself fully to a sound, and yet still manage to come out on the other side with a bunch of very good songs, a handful of great ones and no discernible loss of identity. It's surprising, then, that on The People's Key, when he seems for the first time to have tried his hand at implementing all of his hard-won experiences with different genres into one album—you'll even recall the agitated emo of Desaparecidos at a few points—he fails to make much of an impression.
There are some nice moments here, and they mostly come early on. The first dozen or so times I listened, I found myself unable to remember the second half—it wasn't until after realizing this and committing myself to sitting down and listening that I realized why: side B is a blur of mid-tempo tracks with very little to offer in terms of melody, and even less in terms of bite. If there's an exception, it's the stark, touching "Ladder Song," a sweet, aching anomaly featuring Oberst solo on a piano. This stands in stark contrast to side A, though, which, after one of his now trademark slow-burning openers, continues with "Shell Games" and "Jejune Stars," two refreshingly upbeat songs that, with some of the best melodies he's ever written, and lyrics like "I sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar/I'm still angry with no reason to be," get things off to a promising start."Approximate Sunlight" is borderline trippy, with all sorts of echo, some spoken samples, some nicely employed pedal steel, and again, a melody that sounds extremely inspired. It's quickly surpassed, though, by album highlight "Haile Selassie," a driving, repetitive track with a melody that is as unexpected as it is memorable—a nice little trick, the importance, and rarity, of which can't be understated.
What's irksome, though, even on the good songs, is that, while it's a stretch to say he doesn't sound engaged lyrically, Conor Oberst does sound uncharacteristically reserved. He's a little more guarded than usual, less prone to really terrible clunkers, and thus less likely to hit with obvious winners. He seems more confident in what he knows than he ever has before, and he hasn't yet figured out how to make that newfound assuredness work for him—it's hard to listen to The People's Key and not wish he was just a little bit angrier, just a little bit sadder, or at least just a little bit more confused.
When the band finally takes the stage at Radio City in a few weeks, though, who knows, maybe everything that seems to be missing will suddenly make itself clear. Maybe the hundred-some-odd thousand people who will buy the record will hear things we don't, things we're no longer capable of now that we've been living with this stuff for so long. People are telling us over and over again of late that they're experiencing indie rock a little differently than we are, and it almost makes you wonder if we're not about to see a new strain of music critic. Indie-poptimism, anyone?