Time, religion and humanity — these are themes to which Conor Oberst returns after a three-year hiatus from his band, Bright Eyes.

On The People’s Key, Bright Eyes’ eighth studio album (which is also rumored to be Bright Eyes’ final album) Oberst settles into a trio with Mike Mogis on strings and percussion, and Nate Walcott on keyboard.

The album begins with narration, not unlike Bright Eyes’ triumph I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Except, instead of Oberst narrating, it’s Oberst’s friend Denny Brewer, who begins: “If there is no such thing as time, you’re already there, and you’re controlling this cycle.”

Then there is talk of history, Genesis and our alien ancestors. The New Age hypnosis ends with Hitler, Satan and human destruction before fading into “Firewall,” a gritty track permeated with the sharp imagery for which Oberst’s lyrics are known. The track ends like an anthem, or a prayer, with “Seen yeah/seen by I and I” harmonized over a drum roll.

The subsequent track, “Shell Games,” is jauntier and plays like an ’80s dance tune with a punch of folk. “Jejune Stars,” a tune about redemption, and “Triple Spiral,” which centers on the ever-confounding theme of time, are both imbued with toe-tapping melodies despite their serious subject matter. You know all that talk about Bright Eyes being emo? Not entirely relevant to this album.

That said, on “Approximate Sunlight” Oberst sounds like a weary man ruminating on the future and current hardships of life, singing, “I’m out of breath, I better sit / Been living hard, living / All I do is follow, just follow this hollow you around.”

Slicing the album right in half is “Haile Selassie,” a fusion of Old Testament allusions and Rastafarian ideals as Oberst cries out, “We are the chosen people / Safe from the next evil / One love!” So this is what Moses would have sounded like had he met Bob Marley. These allusions become the framework for the ultimate conclusion of the song: Religion is strange.

The title track, “A Machine Spiritual (In the People’s Key)” compresses the entirety of the album into four minutes and 20 seconds, playing with notions of time, history and possibility. A song about progress and discovery, the track concludes with the encouraging phrase “We’re starting over” and Brewer’s narrative on cosmic creation.
The penultimate track “Ladder Song” is the most solemn song on the album, featuring Oberst’s crooning accompanied by a piano that plays like a child’s music box. The song grows as a question (“No one knows where the ladder goes”) and moves along the changing nature of religion and humanity. It functions like a self-assuring epiphany when Oberst sings, “This whole life is a hallucination. / You’re not alone in anything.” The strange ride of an album ends with narration again, though this time about love and enlightenment, finalizing the whole thing with the simple word “mercy.”

The People’s Key is a conglomeration of questions as Conor Oberst entwines cryptic New Nge ideas with older-than-time beliefs and integrates some history for good measure. Despite the unending questions, it’s still hopeful, and while at times it’s disconcerting to hear Bright Eyes sounding so catchy, Oberst’s lyrics remind us he is nothing if not a soul-wrenchingly honest lyricist. The People’s Key is odd and quirky, but it’s accessible, as if Oberst were making life’s questions a little bit more tangible for the rest of us.