By Rachel Dovey
Few bands could open an album with a two-and-a-half-minute monologue about time-travel, UFOs and the third dimension and succeed. Bright Eyes is one of the few. The three-piece's new full-length, The People's Key (comin out Feb. 15), begins with a sermon of sorts from Refried Ice Cream guitarist Denny Brewer (a friend of frontman Conor Oberst), who muses "If there is no such thing as time, you're already there . . ."
But Oberst & Co. don't spend their entire 10th studio release gazing into space. Nor does sad-bastard Oberst spend it peering adolescently navelward. Instead, between flights of sci-fi flavored fancy, Key is an almost self-consciously grownup record, in which the singer spits pearls of thirty-something wisdom with some cynicism and a good deal of hope.
On the opening track, Oberst sings "I do my best to sleep through the caterwaul - the classists, the posture and avant-garde." On "Beginner's Mind," he declares "The sunshine's so clich, just like love and pain." The Oberst on Key sounds light years away from the raw, confessional voice that crooned "As somewhere we all die" on Digital Ash in a Digital Urn and lashed out at George Bush in the notorious single "When the President Talks to God."
Musically, it's Bright Eyes' most polished and muscular album to date. Though producer Mike Mogis discovered the drum machine long ago, it anchors the piano and guitar melodies on Key in tight, measured hooks. "Approximated Sunlight" marches to a dashboard-rattling bass, while "Jejune Stars" builds on frantic guitar licks and dissolves repeatedly into cymbal crashes.
Bright Eyes takes a definite risk in making this, their "serious adult record." Arcade Fire tried it this summer and got stuck in suburban banality. But Key ponders the mundane and, Lynch-like, still contemplates the stars. "We used to dream of time machines, now it's said we're post-everything," Oberst laments in "Approximated Sunlight." His strength on Key is that he still manages to dream.