Bright Eyes is back.
Conor Oberst brings his longtime band to Eastern Washington for shows Saturday as part of the Sasquatch Music Festival at The Gorge, and Tuesday at Spokane’s Knitting Factory Concert House.
A prolific songwriter who recorded his first cassette in his Omaha, Neb., bedroom at age 13 – and put out nine albums between 1998 and 2007 – Oberst uncharacteristically went four years between the last Bright Eyes album and the latest, “The People’s Key,” which was released Feb. 15 (his birthday).
Not that indie-rock’s youngest veteran star, now 31, was slowing down. After Bright Eyes went on hiatus following 2007’s “Cassadaga,” Oberst put out two albums and toured as Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band.
He also made an album and hit the road with the supergroup Monsters of Folk, with pals Jim James (My Morning Jacket), M. Ward and Bright Eyes producer/multi-instrumentalist Mike Mogis.
“After ‘Cassadaga,’ we felt like we hit a wall in a sense of it feeling good and fresh,” Oberst says. “To me, it was important to try to make a record without Mike, just because he has been such a safety net with me over the years, having more or less worked exclusively with him in the studio.”
He said he appreciates Bright Eyes more than ever now. The lineup includes Mogis, longtime keyboardist Nate Walcott and Omaha pals Clark Baechle (of the Faint) and Andy LeMaster (Now It’s Overhead).
“I realized there’s a comfort level we have playing together; it’s different from any other collaboration that I’ve ever been involved with,” Oberst says. “It goes back so long now, I don’t know if I’ll ever have anything else like this.”
In contrast to the folkier sounds of Oberst’s post-Bright Eyes work, “The People’s Key” is loaded with sci-fi themes, transcendental lyrics and even some vague references to Mexican immigration, with a loose concept overall about making connections even as the universe is drifting apart.
Among its most curious features is a series of spoken-word interludes/rants delivered by a guy Oberst met while recording near El Paso, Denny Brewer. Brewer’s ramblings include such lines as, “If there is no such thing as time, you’re already there” and “When there’s total enlightenment, there will be peace.”
“The first time I met Denny, I thought, ‘This guy is a rare, special person,’ ” Oberst says. “We had a lot of late nights listening to him pontificate on all these sort of wild subjects.
“Right about the time you get to the point where you say, ‘This guy is a maniac,’ he’ll turn a corner and say something that is so profound and rings so true.”
Oberst said all of these elements – the Mexican ruins, the Texas landscape, the out-there philosophizing – influenced “The People’s Key.”
“Everything in my songwriting is a reaction to what came before it,” he says. “I wanted this album to be less about narrative, and the imagery comes first.
“The songs all make sense to me in a linear way, but I doubt that translates to most listeners. Hopefully, the listeners will interpret it their own way.”
Not everyone was thrilled with the results. Pitchfork’s 5.0 rating of “The People’s Key” (on a scale of 10) rants against all its “shamanic allusions, futurist tail-chasing, Bono-like levels of evangelizing.”
Even some of Oberst’s most loving fans say they long for the personal-toned, confessional songwriter of old.
Now a New York resident when he’s off the road, Oberst hasn’t lost his polite Omaha approach to dealing with such reactions.
“These songs are still very personal,” he says, “and I’m still heavily drawing from experiences in my life and friends’ lives. This album comes from the same sources as all my albums.”
On the other hand, he adds, “The way I approach things, I know I’m not going to write in this style forever. I’m sure there will be a point where it gets to more of a confessional style.
“But who knows? I think the biggest disservice I could do to anyone interested in my music is to phone it in or repeat something just because it worked in the past.”