Returning to Bright Eyes after a three-year solo-ish sojourn, Conor Oberst switches gears for The People’s Key, downshifting from the rustic canyon rock of the Mystic Valley Band so he can ride a moody modern rock vibe not too dissimilar from Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Passing resemblances aside, The People’s Key is quite different in tone and tenor than Digital Ash, the somewhat tempered corrective to the self-styled major statement I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning. Like the Mystic Valley albums before them, The People’s Key is deliberately not designed as a major statement; perhaps it possesses recurrent themes -- spirituality drifts through the album, often taking shape in vague Rastafarian sentiments; the album is bookended by murmured recitations that play like library finds, not spoken truths -- but the album lacks heft. Generally, the songs are concise -- the opener and closer flirt with seven minutes but that’s all due to the elongated narrations -- driven by melody and bearing nicely textured arrangements that leave plenty of space for analog synths lifted from the early days of MTV. Disregarding the lyrics -- something that is not easy or necessarily optimal with Oberst, who is continuing to whittle away his overwritten excesses -- The People’s Key is Bright Eyes’ poppiest record by some measure, trading anthems with the weight of America on their shoulders for sculptured miniatures. Perhaps it lacks ballast and gestalt, but Bright Eyes arguably operates better on a smaller scale, trading pretension for fractured pop that cuts into the cranium with skewed precision.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine