RUMINATIONS by Conor Oberst
Genre: Folk, Singer/Songwriter
Favorite Tracks: “Gossamer Thin,” “A Little Uncanny,” “You All Loved Him Once,” “St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out”
Conor Oberst has been in music for over 20 years now, and yet he has never seemed as uncomfortable with fame as he has on RUMINATIONS. Ever since 300 cassette tapes of his debut WATER were shipped in 1993, he has become an icon in indie music thanks to a series of well-received solo albums and cassettes, crowned by Rolling Stone’s Best Singer-Songwriter award in 2008, not to mention his numerous other musical collaborations with other indie icons such as Neutral Milk Hotel, Of Montreal, and She & Him. Though he is most known for folk and folk rock, he has also branched out into emo with Commander Venus and post-hardcore and punk with the Desaparecidos. However, on a recent tour with the Desaparecidos, he was hospitalized due to anxiety and exhaustion and forced to return to his native home of Omaha, Nebraska.
Combined with the recent discovery of a cyst in his brain, rape allegations (which were later admitted to be a lie), and drug problems, Oberst is clearly in one of the hardest periods of his life, and such pain and misery seeps through every note on RUMINATIONS, his seventh solo album. Gone are any influences of electronica, emo, or punk rock: RUMINATIONS is about as pure and simple as folk music can get. Oberst self-produced the album and played all three instruments (acoustic guitar, harmonica, and piano) on it. It’s short at just under 38 minutes, which is a good thing, since any more of it may drive the listener to depression. RUMINATIONS certainly wins the award for most accurate title and album cover, and while it may not give much of a musical reason to listen to it, it gives more than enough lyrical reasons to.
RUMINATIONS’s artwork shows Conor at a piano in his house; it wouldn’t surprise me if he recorded the entire thing at home given how raw and organic it sounds. Conor has been praised for his live shows, and the ten tracks on RUMINATIONS would sound especially potent and authentic live. However, with only three instruments on the album, monotony does start to set in terms of the song structures. They all usually start with a simple acoustic guitar or piano melody that persists through the entire song, with an occasional harmonica popping up after the chorus. It all sounds quite elegant and pleasant, but it would have been nice to see a song with all three instruments played rather than just two of them at a time.
There’s none of the background vocals, horns sections, or percussion that appear on his previous work, and it’s clear that the music is meant to be nothing more than a cradle for the vocals and lyrics. Oberst’s vocals have a warbly and shaky quality; he sounds like he’s trying be a starry-eyed romantic singing simple love songs, but he breaks down halfway through when he reminds himself of the despair facing him in real life. Any sweet romance or sappy sentiment is followed by a bitter and stinging self-mutilation, like a slap at a hand comfortingly placed on his shoulder. RUMINATIONS’s songs are ponderous ramblings, like the unfiltered thoughts in Oberst’s head regarding fame, love, and depression as he references such figures and events as the Trail of Tears, Syliva Plath, Patti Smith, and the basic ideas of psychoanalysis.
Oberst’s lyrics are obtuse and cryptic without being flowery, because they feel like a natural extension of his clouded and distressed psyche and mind after his experience over the past few years. Rather than feel pretentious and esoteric when he invokes historical figures and writers, Oberst paints himself as such a well-traveled and well-read figure that listeners will believe he thinks about Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture and doesn’t just name-drop him in a weak attempt to sound more cultured. RUMINATIONS is at its best when it’s confused and jumping from one emotion or perspective to the next, like how “Gossamer Thin” starts off about the wife of a famed artist and her thoughts on his groupies who wear “gossamer thin” skirts, but ends on an autobiographical note about Oberst’s own fragile, “gossamer thin” psyche. His musings on fame and celebrity culture are especially poignant, like on “You All Loved Him Once,” where he starts every verse saying “You all loved him once,” followed by a list of grievances read off like a prosecutor against those who built up this celebrity, but later turned their back on him after all the support he gave them.
RUMINATIONS is as meditative and instrumentally stripped back as its cover and title may suggest. Oberst mentions on “Next of Kin” that “I guess I lost all my innocence / Way too long ago,” and the rest of the album feels like the work of a jaded, disillusioned man twice as old as Conor. It feels like an audience was never meant to hear any of this, like Conor was just talking to himself after an especially stressful day and forgot to turn off his microphone. However, that is what makes the album all the more juicy and intriguing. It might not be the most musically complex or compelling album, but as a character study, RUMINATIONS is fascinating to decipher.