Album Review & Song Analysis: Bright Eyes’ “The People’s Key”

The People’s Key is the eighth studio album from Bright Eyes, and here we see a more curious, universal side to Conor Oberst.

Despite that some of the tracks take a few listens to properly digest, it’s the lyrical content on this record that I find most interesting. Oberst provides references of mythical, historical and religious origins (Queen of Sheba, Sisyphus and Caesar come to mind), while Refried Ice Cream’s Denny Brewer provides spoken-word on several tracks. This is an album that you can’t just listen to with your ears- you have to visualize the words.

Since most other reviews will focus on the album’s science, I’ll delve into its themes with some lyrical interpretations (though of course, no one knows a song’s meaning other than the writer).


Bouncing back and forth with constant imagery, this track evokes the general state of the world today. Opening with Brewer’s commentary on other dimensions and reptilian inbreeding, we wade through subjects like language, energy/electricity, commercialism/society, exclusive yet moot places (‘china shops’/’ivory tower’) and spiritual practices. ‘Madeline’ could be referencing Magdala or Mary Magdalene, while ‘on all fours’ could be someone kneeling/repenting. This latter image evokes both the martyr (‘slit wrists’) and child (‘jump ropes’) in the narrator. ‘Bust through’ implies cheap entry into heaven, where the narrator sees ‘crooked crosses,’ aka upside-down crosses or swastikas, which of course hold negative connotations. This track seems to imply that the measures we take to be spiritual or ‘clean’ often have the opposite effect, or at the very least, unintended results.


While the chorus may sound trite, one should look at the surrounding verses. The title itself represents a game where the goal/meaning is always hidden from view, and thus the verses seem to describe those who have suffered yet survived at the hands of the system (be it The system or a system of religious nature). Only those who’ve played the system’s game, lost, and survived somehow with a warm heart, can understand what the narrator means by ‘heavy love.’ The narrator still is angry and perhaps has regrets and second thoughts, but he at least still has a heart, which the majority around him seems to be lacking. Thus, awakening makes love purer, but also a heavier burden to bare.


This track seems to echo how the universal answer is love, but often this simple notion gets clouded with ‘misinformation.’ We are ‘stars’ and thus we believe we are special and have a purpose, but the title suggests that despite our seemingly cosmic destiny, we’re really disconnected an ignorant of anything greater than ourselves- the design isn’t so grand after all; we’re merely DNA. Many religions tend to focus on ‘the wheel’ of life/death/rebirth, but none seem to speak of what happens or where we go when/if we break out of this wheel. The narrator wants to know why he’s hiding ‘from the rain’ (aka something natural of the earth), if ‘we’re made of’ stardust (aka something natural of the universe). Or perhaps, because humans consist of water, why is he afraid to get wet by the rain. Essentially this track made me wonder why universal forces are ambiguously positive, while some forces on earth have subtle stigmas.


This track seems to satirize ‘new age’ trends.


This track seems to discuss how most prophecies have already been, or right now are, being fulfilled.


‘A Machine Spiritual’ seems an oxymoron. Can a machine have a soul? The human body is thought of as a machine, and hopefully some bodies have a soul attached. This is perhaps the most complicated song on the album, as it features phrases an imagery that repeat in other songs. At first glance ‘The People’s Key’ appears to be music itself- or perhaps frequency waves. At first it appears this ‘key’ is negative- ‘the black machine’ and ‘fever dream’ allude to brainwashing/nightmares, emphasized by water in which ‘the bodies float.’ Then we see it as a seemingly positive force- ‘we grow’ and ‘float into the ether.’ Both of these verses evoked images of people dying in water then evaporating into the clouds above. Still, ‘The People’s Key’ could also be love, or perhaps a ploy of ‘a machine spiritual’ within the album itself.

‘Papa Hobo’ could represent God, and how he shouldn’t give up on us yet, while ‘mother mountain’ could represent mother nature, and how she shouldn’t destroy us yet- though clearly we deserve wrath from both forces. ‘His day is coming’ alludes to the second coming of Christ, which is symbolic of a shift in consciousness.

Overall the song seems to be saying that despite everything bad that mankind has brought about, perhaps we can still bring out some good too- we just need time


The narrator starts off worshipping the pagan Goddess religion (‘Maiden, Mother, Crone’), represented by night’s moon. He seems to lose himself in its mystery (‘origami rose’), and lose his ‘sense of time,’ just as we would if we stayed up nights and slept during the day. His nights are not spent dreaming nor doing anything productive. He then shifts to worshipping the Christian holy trinity (‘Father, Son, and Ghost’), represented by day’s sun. Despite the fact that he needed the sun (or archetypal God) in his ‘darkest hour’ (at night), he gains his sense of time back, waking with the sun and feeling secure (‘in control’). Still, he finds himself daydreaming, filling up day’s ‘empty sky’ to try and mirror the stars of the nighttime sky. The first religion is a fortress that he longs to break out of; the second religion is a wide open space that he wants to fill up.

In the end he’s back to the Goddess religion, but still finds himself incomplete. Perhaps ‘carve you into stone’ signifies making the Goddess religion an equal counterpart to Christianity, thus the narrator wouldn’t feel so divided. It could also mean writing down the Goddess mysteries so he’ll remember why the mysteries appealed to him in the first place. It’s thought that Christianity made the Goddess religion obsolete, after extracting its foundations to serve its own agenda (turning female-dominated into male-dominated). Some believe we’ve reached the end of the patriarchal era, and thus the cycle will switch again to the Goddess or merge as one- thus, ‘carve into stone’ is preserving the Goddess way so it won’t be lost or destroyed when/if a new era comes about.


This track seems to emphasize individualism, or rather the knowledge of the ‘inner child.’ ‘What you know now’ suggests the narrator is describing someone who used to be like everybody else but regained their ‘inner child.’ He’s warning how easy it is to once again become ‘just like everyone.’ Like many songs on this record, there’s also connections to other tracks: Here he sings ‘you keep starting over’ while in “A Machine Spiritual” he sings ‘we’re starting over.’ There’s also another mention of ‘the wheel.’


Supposedly written for a friend of Conor’s who committed suicide, this is a devastatingly beautiful track. He describes how the process of death is the same for everyone (‘no one knows where the ladder goes’), and how he understands the feeling of wanting to travel to other worlds (‘science fiction’) and reject the weary mass consumption of idols (‘let Jesus hang and Buddha sit’). ‘I’ll do it on my terms’ further portrays suicide, while ‘the jungle lights’ mentioned in “A Machine Spiritual” are presented here again.


This closing track discusses the division of the human race, and how mercy and compassion are the only methods by which we can turn ‘you and me’ into ‘I and I’- two people united as one under love.

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