Conor Oberst is a man of many faces. He’s best known as the founder and frontman of the band Bright Eyes, whose angsty, acoustic guitar-driven “emo” songs reached peak popularity in the early to mid-2000s. This of course oversimplifies the band’s music, which mellowed and matured significantly over the years, but the association remains. There’s also the angry, shouting Oberst who fronts the politically-charged punk band Desaparecidos, who released their second album Payola last year. Lastly, there’s the mellow, folksy Oberst that appears on his solo releases, his work with the Mystic Valley Band, and side project Monsters of Folk.
As a result of these delineations, there’s an implicit assumption that you know which Oberst to expect when he announces a new album. Since Ruminations was released as a solo project, one might assume that it would be vaguely country-sounding, heavy on acoustic guitar riffs, and well-produced. More importantly, Oberst tends to use his solo work (both with and without the backing Mystic Valley Band) to highlight a more carefree, chilled out version of himself. His 2014 solo album Upside Down Mountain contained quiet reflections on his place in life, desires to get away from it all, and even some childhood reminiscing – a far cry away from when he plotted out his death on Bright Eyes songs. Spin Magazine seemed to summarize the transformation when they wrote their cover story “Conor Oberst Has Cheered Up.”
That’s not necessarily the case with Ruminations. To call Ruminations “angsty” would be poor diction, since this word too heavily evokes the younger version of Oberst that fronted Bright Eyes, and he is indeed a very different person now. Now 36 years old, Oberst’s attitude is best understood in the context of albums like In Conflict by Owen Pallett or pretty much any album by the National. Like these albums, Ruminations is a troubled realizations for Oberst that he is not getting any younger, that he is mortal, and that he is playing the cards he has been dealt in life. After all, the term “rumination” in psychology means to repeatedly dwell on a problem.
Several parts of Ruminations seem autobiographical in this context. Oberst was forced to cancel an entire tour last year due the discovery of a cyst on his brain, which is spelled out on the track “Counting Sheep,” where he sings “life is a gas, what can you do?/catheter piss, fed through a tube/cyst in the brain, blood on the bamboo.” If that weren’t bleak enough, he also reflects on how the situation could kill him with lines like “closing my eyes, counting the sheep/gun in my mouth, trying to sleep/everything ends, everything has to.” Opening track “Tachycardia” is named for the medical term for an irregularly rapid heartrate, a symptom of Oberst’s condition that landed him in the hospital last year. And when he isn’t singing about ailments, he’s singing about regrets with lines like “I spread my anger like Agent Orange, I was indiscriminate” on “Next of Kin,” which echoes the line “sold my tortured youth, piss and vinegar/I’m still angry with no reason to be” from Bright Eyes’ The People’s Key.
Other parts of Ruminations are less autobiographical, but still downers. The aforementioned “Next of Kin” gets its title from Oberst musing what it must be like to make a death notification call, with lines like “got some bad news that couldn’t wait/are you sitting down?” Track “Gossamer Thin” opens with a description of a character who has “rings round his eyes, tracks down his arms.” And “Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)” is full of allusions to Frank Lloyd Wright’s work, including a lamentation that his famous project Fallingwater is “is a perfect house where no one lives/maybe someone once did, but they got evicted by a busload full of greedy tourists.”
What’s so striking about all of these verses is the matter-of-fact way in which Oberst sings them on Ruminations. The desperation heard on Bright Eyes albums like Fevers and Mirrors is long gone, which will be welcome to those found younger Oberst “whiny.” His anger seems entirely reserved for Desaparecidos these days, as there’s none of it in his tone here. Instead, he delivers his lines with the neutral voice developed on previous folk-oriented albums. His trademark warbling has returned though, particularly on “Barbary Coast (Later)” where he sings “I don’t want you to feel sad baby/I take everything back, I swear I do.” This is made all the more noticeable by the fact that there are no guest vocalists on the album, making Ruminations his first solo album that’s a literal solo effort. Oberst’s voice is notoriously divisive, so if that’s turned you off to his previous albums, Ruminations probably won’t help.
While much has been made of Oberst’s lyrics so far, as these tend to be the centerpiece of his various musical projects, the instrumentation on Ruminations is also breaches new territory. Aside from Oberst’s voice, the entire album consists solely of acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica. This latter instrument is actually the most surprising, since harmonica has barely been featured at all in any of Oberst’s projects, and every track on Rumincations, save “Counting Sheep,” includes the instrument. The result is a brand of Americana evocative of Bob Dylan or Oberst’s musical friends the Felice Brothers (Simone Felice, formerly of the band, wrote the album’s introduction in its included booklet).
On the press release for Ruminations, Oberst said he recorded the tracks in the span of 48 hours, “quick to get them down, but then it just felt right to leave them alone” and “wasn’t expecting to write a record.” This shows on the album, which is pleasantly minimalist but also fairly disjointed. It may seem uniform at first since the tracks are around the same length and feature the same limited instrumentation, the strong presence of Oberst’s voice and harmonica, and generally dreary lyrics. Yet listening to the album, it very much feels like a compilation of ten distinct songs, each inspired by ideas that had been circling in Oberst’s head for a while but not fully fleshed out. No one track feels exceptionally stronger than the others, and you most likely won’t be playing one song over and over for enjoyment. Had this been a long-awaited follow-up, Ruminations would be somewhat disappointing. But taken it its context as a way to kill time during the winter and clear his thoughts, it’s an impressive result.