Mescaline-soaked narratives woven through hallucinatory images of Americana.
Lewis G. Parker 2011
Like many before him who achieved brilliance in popular songwriting, Conor Oberst changed, in 2007, to become a different artist. The great humanist of a generation didn’t write many songs that were about concrete human experiences anymore, but contemplated new-age spirituality and mysticism instead. The emotional intensity had disappeared, and the catatonic angst at the core of his being – which screamed out of key and out of tune on his earlier songs – was getting lost in his oblique new approach to songwriting. That phase started with Cassadaga, and has run through both albums with the Mystic Valley Band and Monsters of Folk. Like Dylan’s mid-60s period of surrealism, it was a big stylistic change that left a few people cold.
In 2011, Oberst is still releasing albums framed – like Cassadaga – by a lunatic’s sermon that doesn’t seem like it’s being used for the purposes of irony. The worry is that there is nothing in the songs to suggest that Oberst – like the great Scientologist, Beck – doesn’t embrace this stuff too. On the finer cuts, such as the title-track, a weird, mescaline-soaked narrative is woven through hallucinatory images of Americana. On the piano ballad Ladder Song, he laments, "I know when this world’s done / This world is an hallucination," which captures the new paradigm. But aside from a few moments of clarity – with references to pilgrims, the Queen of Sheba, and a host of grand allegorical images – the songs don’t really communicate much, other than some unspecified transition to a different place: physical, artistic or mental.
The vagueness of the lyrics doesn’t have to be a problem, of course, as Dylan showed on Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde. But those records had rocking tunes. Back in 2003, Oberst could have sung Happy Birthday and made you weep. On 2002’s Lifted, the band sounded like the world was about to end and they were the only musicians worth listening to. But with his vocals still restrained and the band’s music only changing from gentle Americana to a slightly harder electric sound, The People’s Key doesn’t have as much to convince the listener to join Oberst on his journey.