Conor Oberst says that when he started work on "The People's Key," the new album by his celebrated folk-rock outfit Bright Eyes, he was guided less by what he wanted the album to sound like than by what he didn't want it to sound like.
"I was really burnt out on that rootsy Americana shit," the frontman says. "So I tried to steer clear of that."
"Rootsy Americana shit" is one way to describe the vibe of Bright Eyes' last studio disc, 2007's "Cassadaga"; the description also suits "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning," one of a pair of sets that Bright Eyes released on the same day in 2005. (According to Nielsen SoundScan, "Cassadaga" has sold 221,000 copies, while "I'm Wide Awake It's Morning" is at 475,000.) Yet Oberst says those records only represent "an element of the music I make -- it's not wholly what we do in any way."
"We have an ability to morph our sound from record to record," adds Mike Mogis, the band's producer and multi-instrumentalist. "If Conor says we're going in a new direction, I get behind him."
Due Feb. 15 from Saddle Creek, "The People's Key" sets Oberst's songs against a variety of styles: "Jejune Stars" and "Triple Spiral" throb with loud, grungy electric guitars; "Approximated Sunlight" rides a drowsy trip-hop groove; "Ladder Song" is a delicate piano ballad.
Though the album features guest spots by Matt Maginn of Cursive and Autolux drummer Carla Azar, among others, Mogis says the set is more of a concentrated group effort by him, Oberst and keyboardist Nate Walcott than was "Cassadaga," on which the band's core members were joined by such high-profile names like M. Ward and Gillian Welch. "We kind of wanted to keep this record to ourselves," Mogis says, "rather than bring in people whose unique identities can alter the shape of a song."
In December Saddle Creek began rolling out the album by giving away an MP3 of the track "Shell Games," which label owner Robb Nansel calls "a good introduction to the record. It starts out sounding like what you expect from Bright Eyes, then ventures off into this other territory."
Nansel admits that the four-year gap between Bright Eyes projects -- during which Oberst released a pair of solo albums, as well as the self-titled debut by his indie-scene supergroup Monsters of Folk -- caused him to wonder "if people had moved on." Initial feedback to "Shell Games," though, has "been really positive," he says. Bright Eyes manager Nate Krenkel adds that the break might actually deliver an advantage: "Things are happening so fast now with the drive to constantly discover new artists," he says. "So when an old favorite surfaces, it kind of allows this moment to pause and just enjoy music again."
In addition to attracting the band's longtime fans, Nansel says one of his principal goals for "The People's Key" -- which is available for preorder on Saddle Creek's website in three different bundles -- is exposing Bright Eyes to consumers who may be familiar with Oberst's name (from his political activism, for instance) but who haven't bought one of the band's records.
"We're not just going after the Pitchfork banner ads," Nansel says. "We're trying to think outside the box: putting something in the Utne Reader or on Politico. The hope is that when someone sees a music ad on those sites, it'll jump out at them." To a similar end, Nansel says he's looking into selling the album at such nontraditional retail outlets as Whole Foods.
Live work will also figure heavily into the disc's promotion, says Krenkel, who adds that "seeing it performed live will probably bring out the threads of consistency that run through the entire Bright Eyes catalog." Important bookings include New York's Radio City Music Hall (March 8-9), the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. (April 16) and London's Royal Albert Hall (June 23).
Bright Eyes played Radio City on the Cassadaga tour, Nansel recalls, but didn't sell out until the night of the show. But this time, "the first date sold out pretty quickly, and now we're on the way to selling out the second as well," he says. "That to me is representative of the level they're at on this record. We're trying to make them the band to see in 2011."