Conor Oberst's Ruminations finds the seasoned folk bard in a bare room with just his guitar, piano, and harmonica to keep him company
Atop the CD sleeve for Conor Oberst's new LP Ruminations, there's a sticker that reads, "Made in Omaha in the dead of winter, 2016." It's a marketing gimmick, perhaps, but it's also a statement that speaks volumes about the Bright Eyes frontman's latest work. This is a Midwestern record; a cold record; a contemporary record. Between the walls that contain it, the introductory "Tachychardia" and valedictory "Til St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out", two songs that seal the air so tightly inside the LP that it's surprising Oberst has any clean oxygen left to breathe, you can sense a tangle of feelings associated with unbroken isolation: depression, dreaminess, fatalism, a longing for the sun and the skin that the sun coaxes out of hiding. While he's been active throughout much of the past decade with projects ranging from the decibel-crunching punk of Desaparecidos and the raucous roots rock of the Mystic Valley Band, this is a devoutly, even defiantly, independent outing. Here, it's easy to picture Oberst alone with his guitar, piano, and harmonica -- not just an introvert, but a restless hermit with extreme neuroses, someone who perceives the world with such intensity that a locked room seems preferable to open air.
"I'm a stone's throw from everyone I love and know / But I can't show up looking like I do," Oberst sings on "Tachycardia", his trademark vocal tremors pulling the ground out from each syllable, transforming them into split-second avalanches of breath and errant emotion. It's a song that introduces the spare instrumentation and drowning-soul moodiness that pervades Ruminations, and it's a lyric that sums up the record's essential solipsism. This does mean that Oberst is an egoist; rather, it means that he's a songwriter so preoccupied by his personal visions, hallucinations, observations, tics, and paranoias that the only reality he knows is the one crammed inside his skull. Listening, one wouldn't be off-base to think of Hunter S. Thompson's sobering words from his private correspondence, "We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and -- in spite of True Romance magazines -- we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way."
Indeed, the singer of "Tachycardia" is not the same singer from Bright Eyes' seminal "At the Bottom of Everything" from 2005's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. There, the operative word was "we", not "I". Oberst was staring death in the face, or possibly glimpsing some abstract apocalypse, but there was a swell of insurgent hope in his voice, an insistence on unity in a time of fracture and sociopolitical antagonism. "And in the ear of every anarchist / That sleeps but doesn't dream / We must sing, we must sing, we must sing," he howled over a jubilation of plucked strings, the three repetitions of "we must sing" becoming the chant of some exultant protest march that has no objective other than acting as one. As the song's narrative frame suggests, even if everything seems to be falling from "30,000 feet" to a certain demise, there's solace to be taken in the fact that everyone is going down together.
On Ruminations, though, only Oberst seems to be falling. No one is there to catch him; no one is there by his side. At least, that's what his imagination has convinced him. "Closing my eyes / Counting sheep / Gun in my mouth / Trying to sleep," he begins on the tremulous folk dirge "Counting Sheep", walking down the melody like it's a staircase leading to the darkest chasm of his psyche. He returns to the piano for "The Rain Follows the Plow", but, just like "Counting Sheep", it's a composition of almost deafening melancholy. "A Little Uncanny", the apex of the LP's second act, finds him wailing through a Dylan-esque portrait of a shallow, morally bankrupt woman as well as a critical Ronald Reagan biography, before launching into a hurried eulogy for an eclectic list of deceased celebrities: "I miss Christopher Hitchens / I miss Oliver Sacks / I miss poor Robin Williams."
These songs are ruminations, sure, sudden flights of fancy and spectacles of psychological drama, but that word doesn't capture the sheer expansiveness of the fictive realities this record contains. If there is one thing you can say about Oberst, it's that, as a storyteller, he has improved markedly since his earliest work with Bright Eyes. His poetic imagery is now purposeful rather than sloppily surreal and strung-together, and his songwriting persona has developed into something akin to an underground poet with a grayscale Middle America upbringing. Ruminations is evidence of this. Dark, wandering, and at times even starkly morbid, it's a record that avows loneliness, presents it honestly, without outright glorifying it. This room is full of asphyxiating memories and dashed hopes, Oberst seems to say, but stay and listen for a while.