Ruminations is a record like none other in Conor Oberst’s catalog, stunning for how utterly alone he sounds.
Conor Oberst’s music has never sounded lonely. Yes, he’s done catatonically despondent, inconsolable, dejected, maniacal—it’s a lot to handle, and yet he’s always been surrounded by friends both local and legendary who believe in his vision, underscoring his status as one of the 21st century’s most mercurial and charismatic songwriters. Arriving almost a month after a comprehensive Bright Eyes boxed set that feels like a headstone for the band, Ruminations is a record like none other in Oberst’s catalog—stunning for how utterly alone he sounds. This is obvious in a technical sense, as there are no goddamn timpani rolls, no boys to keep strummin’ those guitars, just Oberst on harmonica, acoustic and piano with ten songs written during an Omaha winter and recorded in 48 hours. Plenty of folk artists make records like that. But there’s also a loneliness in Ruminations that’s far rare and disturbing—the loneliness one feels after taking stock and wondering if they have a friend left in the world.
“When it came time to stand with him, you scattered with the rats,” Oberst spits on “You All Loved Him Once,” a song whose title alone would create an uncomfortable subtext on any of his albums. Most fans assume any Oberst lyric written in the first person has to be about Conor Oberst and he’s acknowledged the “weird betrayal” they express when he fails to meet their expectations. Such was the case on 2014’s Upside Down Mountain, one of his more mildly received LPs. But many wouldn’t even acknowledge its existence to begin with—in late 2013, an anonymous post in XOJane’s comments section metastasized into a serious rape allegation against Oberst that was exposed as a fabrication; but only after a libel suit that quantified the damage to his career and reputation at $1 million (which would have been donated to charity). Oberst had the complaint dismissed after his accuser recanted and apologized, even though his name couldn’t truly be cleared; the rash of articles that presumed his guilt are still easy to find and treat his innocence like a minor factual clarification.
Oberst does not address this situation directly on Ruminations. He comes close on its opener, imagining himself back in Omaha, sweating through his suit in a courtroom: “It’s a bad dream, I have it seven times a week/No, it’s not me/But I’m the one who has to die.” The title of this song is “Tachycardia,” which hints at the personal issues Oberst does directly address going forward, mostly the medical and mental maladies that popped up after he moved back to Omaha with his wife—Oberst talks about his blood pressure, therapy, “alkaline produce,” suicidal ideation and a cerebral cyst that sunk his tour behind Desaparecidos’ flamethrowing agit-punk reunion LP Payola.
Ruminations is Oberst’s most emotionally legible work since Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, also defined by its similarly cloistered worldview and sonic cohesion. Juxtaposed with the stately, worldly and universally beloved I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, Digital Ashfelt like an “everything must go” clearance of songwriting tropes that sustained Bright Eyes up to 2005 and hadn’t returned since—drugs, casual sex, familial disappointment, mistrust of religion. These all come back in very startling ways on Ruminations, but more importantly, there’s the return of that quaver; the unsteady, hypothermic warble that made him a generational icon during his heyday and had all but disappeared on his more recent recordings.
Whereas it was once a very powerful affectation, Oberst sounds genuinely unsettled now—enough so that longtime engineer Mike Mogis told Vulture he was “a little worried” when he heard the demos, and on “Counting Sheep,” Oberst mentions the death of two children before intoning, “I hope it was slow, hope it was painful.” The names are redacted and it’s more disturbing for shifting the focus to the why of Oberst’s lyric rather than the who. Before “Counting Sheep” even gets to that point, it’s already an uncomfortably realistic document of insomnia, Oberst playing its stumbling chords with all thumbs, “gun in my mouth, trying to sleep/everything ends, everything has to.”
Because Mogis is involved, Ruminations isn’t lo-fi by any means, but it’s raw. There isn’t a delicately played note here and Oberst’s performance lends a palpable urgency to Ruminations that had been missing from his most recent work, perhaps at the expense of ambition. Ruminations at least makes good on its promise, trying to find connections between Oberst’s latter-day obsession with escaping the mythical construct of Conor Oberst and his prior obsession with living that construct.
“I don’t want to feel stuck baby, I just want to get drunk before noon,” Oberst casually announces on “Barbary Coast (Later)”; he also imagines himself as Paul Gauguin and John Muir, only to realize he’s not a painter or the outdoorsy type. He’s still Conor Oberst, and throughout Ruminations, day-drunk surrealism is punctured by what he’s best at: lacerating assessments of himself. They’re some of the most brutal he’s allowed himself in a decade: “Something dies when a star is born/I spread my anger like Agent Orange/I was indiscriminate,” Oberst sings on “Next of Kin,” preceded by a devastating portrait of a widower and the man who had to deliver the bad news. And yet, for all of the individual potency of the verses in “Next of Kin,” like much of Ruminations, the loose conceptual bundling doesn’t allow it the same knee-buckling thrust of similarly composed narratives like “Nothing Gets Crossed Out” or “Waste of Paint.”
“You All Loved Him Once” almost gets there. A song before it, Oberst admits, “I met Lou Reed and Patti Smith/It didn’t make me feel different,” and he spends six verses probing the inevitable disillusion and futility of hero worship. Unless you assume Conor Oberst affords himself the same grandiose self-belief as Kanye West, it seems that half of “You All Loved Him Once” at most, could be considered autobiographical. Some of it is almost certainly about Bernie Sanders or Barack Obama, or even just a friend who’s gotten too successful. But towards the end, some lines ring just too painfully true: “The more and more was put on him, he tried his best to take it on…you all loved him once/now he is gone”, he sings, and rather than making Oberst sound entitled, he comes off as someone legitimately disillusioned after an unimaginably awful public ordeal. But in the very next song, he’s gone off to an Irish pub in the East Village, trying to find a friend who’ll drink with him until they get kicked out. He’s still Conor Oberst, after all.