The People's Key opens with Refried Icecream guitarist Denny Brewer ranting about Sumerian mythology before the stark and almost sinister Americana-tinged guitar riff of Firewall arrives along with Oberst's vocals, which sound more cold and disconnected than ever. Gone is the urgency and desperation with which Oberst used to deliver his poetic musings, even his trademark shaky vibrato, replaced with a voice that occasionally sounds tired and disinterested. The lush symphony arrangements as utilized on previous album Cassadaga have been cast aside in favor of greater focus on electric guitar and drums, yet the edginess that would have given this album some much needed grit and punch is sidestepped for twee guitar licks, clichéd embellishments and cheesy synths. Shell Games is a great song but where the chorus should soar it merely simpers along, held down along with the rest of the track by its twee trappings.
Much of the album is marked by unnecessary and distracting musical and production elements that simply take away from Oberst's mysterious and dense sci-fi infused spiritual lyrical content. On the rollicking Triple Spiral the band sound most harmoniously synchronized and with Ladder Song, the album's most affecting track, we are treated with nothing but Oberst's voice and a piano. There are some great ideas and moments across this album but too often it feels overstuffed or overproduced; if this is to be the final Bright Eyes album as rumored it would be an oddly resignatory note to bow out on, so here's hoping the band will return with at least one more gem before the final curtain call. Check out the official video for lead single Shell Games below: