By the time The People’s Key reaches its penultimate track, “Ladder Song,” Conor Oberst sounds exhausted. Containing his catharsis behind the album’s façade of squeaky-clean production, it feels like Oberst and his Bright Eyes moniker might fade off into the distance once and for all.

Bright Eyes

The People’s Key
Saddle Creek

But as the song dissolves, the redemptive force of closer “One for You, One for Me” transforms into a groove of reassurance — a fitting way to end an album that had a consistent cloud of doubt over its very release.

Unfortunately, media-perpetuated rumors leading up to the release of The People’s Key — hinting that the days are numbered for Oberst’s Bright Eyes project — might overshadow a praiseworthy musical achievement. The album finds the Omaha native further and further away from his parents’ basement (where he recorded the earliest Bright Eyes material) and showcases pristine balladry (“Approximate Sunlight,” “Ladder Song”), full-blown rock‘n’roll (“Jejune Stars,” “Haile Selassie”) and pure pop songs (“Triple Spiral,” “One for You, One for Me”).

Even though Oberst has gradually moved away from the blatantly emotive vocal style he embraced in the past, he doesn’t shy away from the capital-“B” Big Issues that have long been a staple of his music. The People’s Key picks up where 2007’s Cassadaga left off, as it explores the controlling forces of the world, this time expanding into the afterlife. Lines like “No one knows where the ladder goes” and “That place that I think of so often … The one the voice in the back of my head says that I don’t deserve” illustrate Oberst’s uncertainty on the matter.

Oberst also employs the help of Refried Ice Cream’s Denny Brewer, who talks about what’s assumed to be views and opinions the two share. Bright Eyes’s albums are no stranger to spoken word introductions, as Oberst has used this technique several times in the past. For The People’s Key though, the music doesn’t kick in until the two-and-a-half minute mark — an awful long time to wait for an album to start. And since it doesn’t stand alone as a separate track, it’s a slight nuisance to have to fast-forward through. Brewer’s ramblings are far from mainstream, but provide some interesting insights on how aliens connect to the Garden of Eden and the like.

A great attention to detail is heard in moments like the half-tempo harmonizing of “Triple Spiral,” the searing guitar build-up after the bridge of “Shell Games” and the opening chaos of “Jejune Stars” — all of which provide some of the finest musical moments in the Bright Eyes catalogue.

As “One for You, One for Me” finishes out the record, it’s hard not to ponder if this is the last we’ll hear from Bright Eyes. Between the politically charged punk rock of Desaparecidos, jam-band stylings of supergroup Monsters of Folk and spirited southwestern country of the Mystic Valley Band, Oberst has a number of respectable options when it comes to musical endeavors.

However, The People’s Key serves as a reminder that Oberst does his best work while wearing the Bright Eyes tag. And as the buoyant beat of the closing track bounces along, it seems like Oberst is talking directly to that uncertain audience as he repeats the title of the song. Bright Eyes has always been a two-way relationship between Oberst’s personal needs and the needs of his audience.

Regardless of whether or not this is the final Bright Eyes release, it seems unfair to view The People’s Key as a farewell album. Instead, it should be judged as an album of many merits — apart from any outside circumstances. Even though the issue of future releases is unresolved, the acknowledgment provided in such a nostalgic-sounding track will be comfortable to any listener.

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