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Quick Spins: Review of Bright Eyes' 'The People's Key'

Tuesday, February 8, 2011; C03

Bright Eyes The People's Key

"I'm taking some comfort in knowing the wave has crested," Conor Oberst sings halfway through Bright Eyes' "The People's Key," sounding more wise than world-weary, more sage than crank. It's a tone of embrace - of experience, electronic timbres, enlightenment - that the eighth Bright Eyes album strikes. And even if only about half the songs are worthy additions to Oberst's now-estimable canon, that still qualifies the record as a success.

The big news from the 10-track disc is Oberst's turn away from the rootsy Americana that has long been the backbone of his sound. Flourishes still decorate the songs - the intro to the title track, the easy lope of "Beginner's Mind" - but seasoned rock-and-roll songwriting and thick electronic tones are the chief sonic signatures.

Oberst continues to compulsively adorn his songs with verbal flotsam (here, courtesy of Texas musician Denny Brewer), but the surging melodies of "Haile Selassie" and "One for You, One for Me" are where the real wisdom lies. On those tracks and on gripping mid-tempo rockers such as "Shell Games" and "Triple Spiral," he sings with the maturity of a veteran musician (soon to turn a crusty 31, he's spent half his life as a professional rocker).

His vocals are as rich as they have ever been, and despite a couple of tiresome clunkers - the dirgelike "Ladder Song" and awful opener, "Firewall" - "The People's Key" is perhaps the most listenable Bright Eyes record ever.

"Children they fill the bleachers/one is the next Caesar," Oberst sings at one point, not for a second sounding like he feels the need to compete with them. That ability to let go has made him a greater artist. Here's hoping he continues to offer his audience rewards this rich.

- Patrick Foster

Recommended tracks: "Haile Selassie," "One for You, One for Me," "A Machine Spiritual (in the People's Key)"

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