Conor Oberst tones his life down with the poetic ‘Ruminations’

By William Plotnick

conor-oberst

When pressures of work and life are too high, a great way to ease tension and return to a peaceful state is by taking a small break. The fruits of this sort of relaxation are boundless, because a rejuvenated state of being can bring about enhanced creativity and productivity.

So was the case for famed singer-songwriter Conor Oberst.

While touring with his band Desaparecidos in 2015, Oberst fell ill from anxiety and exhaustion. He decided to cancel the rest of the band’s tour in order to retreat back to his hometown in Omaha, Nebraska.

It was there that Oberst attempted to get a better grip on the hectic pace of his life. Now, a year later, Oberst has released the offspring of this relaxed time period with his seventh solo studio album “Ruminations.”

“Ruminations,” released Oct. 14, reveals a version of Oberst that many listeners have likely not encountered before. While he is usually playing and singing behind an instrumentation choir with bands like Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos or Monsters of Folk, here only a guitar, a piano, a harmonica and his voice can be heard.

In addition, these songs were conceptualized from a state of personal reflection. Therefore, they contain darker and more brutal lyrics, which Oberst puts forth with pain-staking earnestness.

Oberst conveys a more freewheeling musical style on “Ruminations,” as it was recorded in a mere 48 hours. Instead of retreating from his musical duties while on break, he simply approaches them in a more relaxed way. This sense of calm provides the music with a young, gleeful tone.

One may be reminded of early Bob Dylan, croaking the tunes of Woody Guthrie with only a harmonica and guitar on his self-titled, 1962 debut. Akin to Dylan’s most lauded attribute, on “Ruminations,” Oberst proves to be one of the most beautiful songwriters in music today.

Oberst’s well rounded artistic talent is conveyed on the album’s second song “Barbary Coast (Later).” Here, a pretty chord progression is played on acoustic guitar while Oberst intimately sings aloud his sparse thoughts: “’Cause the modern world, is a sight to see/It’s a stimulant, its pornography/It takes all my will not to turn it off.”

“Barbary Coast (Later)” is statement on depression that includes the effects of social media and modern technology and a confession of past suicidal thoughts. It is incredibly psychologically intimate, a song that will unsettle those who related to Oberst before.

“Counting Sheep” is the album’s most somber song, as it conveys a period in Oberst’s life when death was perpetually on his mind. “Closing my eyes, counting sheep/Gun in my mouth, trying to sleep/Everything ends, everything has to.” While he was recording “Ruminations,” Oberst had learned of a cyst (found later to be benign) on his brain. Here, his lyrics reflect his uncertainty with his own health, and his fear of dying at any moment.

In “The Rain Follows The Plow,” Oberst conveys his skill as a pianist, creating a moving ballad to compliment the narrative that the lyrics detail. The song takes the listener on a reflection of Oberst’s early childhood: “Broke all the rules at Catholic school/Turned to a life of crime.”

Leaving behind a life surrounded by bigotry to become a vagabond, Oberst made many spontaneous decisions as a young man. Yet the song ends on a note of satisfaction in where he has landed from that point in his youth. He explains, “I don’t need God or common law to tell me right from wrong/‘Cause when you press me to your chest I know where I belong.”

“Ruminations” is a simple album that creates beautiful melodies for Oberst to express his heavily ruminated lyrics over. If there are any profundities to be found here, they are within his psyche itself, as the listener will surely have an emotional reaction to the way Oberst opens up about his own feelings and fears when the sounds of piano and harmonica are in the air.

This record may serve best to the biggest Oberst/Bright Eyes fans around, as others unfamiliar with this man’s work may feel unattached or uninterested in how intimate and significant the album is in Oberst’s catalog.

William Plotnick can be reached at [email protected]