Bright Eyes’ latest album, The People’s Key, plays like some strange transmission beamed from deep space. In other words, it’s nothing like its tethered-to-earth 2007 predecessor, Cassadaga.
“I think we’d all grown a little weary of the folky/rootsy aesthetic,” Oberst explains. “We really wanted to stay away from those sounds and color with a different palette.”
Gone are the organic fiddles and mandolins of the band’s last few records, replaced by gravity-bending analog synths and overdriven, interstellar guitar work. And there are plenty of cosmic ruminations to match: The People’s Key is conspicuously sticky with the residue of Oberst’s mind-bending late-night conversations with friend Denny Brewer of the band Refried Ice Cream, who guests on the new record in a series of esoteric, mad-prophet interludes. During these intriguing breaks in the action, Brewer spits passionately over Bright Eyes’ atmospheric accompaniment, rambling about super universes, Tesla, Einstein, Hitler, expanding space, the Garden of Eden, Sumerian bloodlines, phase shifting, parallel dimensions and reptilian aliens riding chariots of fire. “Whether it’s through a book or film or conversation,” Oberst says, “everything that I absorb goes into whatever subconscious swirl of brain function, and [eventually] finds its way into the music.”
In addition to Brewer’s enigmatic philosophies, the songs on The People’s Key were fueled by writer Margaret Atwood’s post-apocalyptic novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. “I appreciate science fiction in the same way I appreciate magical realism,” Oberst says. “Even though they both take liberties with reality, they can communicate human truths sometimes better than a work of strict realism because it gives the author more freedom to communicate the idea without being constrained by what people think is possible.”
As for his own take on the future, Oberst says that, while he’d like to believe we’re heading toward a new evolutionary step where we’ll be more peaceful, empathetic and compassionate, “all indications I see around me do not point to that. And it is kind of depressing. There are a lot of times I wish I could live in the past. Obviously, I want to make the best of whatever happens, but it’s scary, you know? I think with every technological advance, we lose a little bit of our human nature.”
Given Oberst’s admitted aversion to technology, it’s no surprise that he’s a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to how music should be consumed. One of the reasons Brewer’s monologues were included on the new album, he says, was to slow listeners down and, hopefully, get them to play the The People’s Key straight through—an increasingly rare occurrence these distracted days. “We intended people to listen to it as one piece,” Oberst says. “Obviously, that’s not going to happen every time, but that’s how we approach making records. We’re old-fashioned like that.”
For The People’s Key, Oberst reunited with his longtime Bright Eyes bandmates Mike Mogis and Nate Walcott. It was the first time all three had worked together on an album in nearly half a decade. In the years between, Oberst struck out on his own, releasing his eponymous solo debut (2008) and Outer South (2009) backed by a new cast of musicians who came to be known as the Mystic Valley Band. “After Cassadaga,” Oberst says, “it felt important to me to make a record without Mike, just because he’d been such a safety net for me. ... But to get back with both him and Nate, and make a record in our home studio—it’s the most comfortable situation. And I think the time away from it made us all appreciate each other more.”
The members of Bright Eyes will have plenty of time to revel in their joyous reunion, as the band is now back on the road in the midst of an extensive tour of the U.S., Canada and Europe that runs from May through mid August, punctuated by a recently announced stop at the Austin City Limits festival on Sept. 16. Just don’t expect Oberst to tweet about it. “I’m not a big fan of the Internet,” he says. “I don’t do any social networking or blogging or anything like that. ... I don’t really find that interesting. I’d rather talk to someone, and touch them—that kind of thing.”