A terrific little album from a veritable master of his craft.
Whether it be Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, Monsters of Folk or simply his solo work, Conor Oberst has released more music by age 36 than most of his contemporaries could ever hope to. And what’s most shocking is the majority of that work is really good. His latest solo album is no different.
Ruminations came about after Oberst’s bout with laryngitis, anxiety and exhaustion hit the brakes on Desaparecidos’ Payola support tour. A winter spent in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska was exactly what Oberst needed to regroup and strip down to piano, guitar and harmonica in order to churn out 10 tracks that are more or less quintessential Oberst. Recorded over only 48 hours, Ruminations is exactly the type of record that proves that this guy knows precisely what he’s doing and how to do it.
Oberst played the three featured instruments himself. Even without a backing band or any other songwriters to assist in the writing process, the acoustic guitar/piano-driven folk found herein harkens back to some of Bright Eyes’ finest moments, especially I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning or Fevers and Mirrors. This is a more lyrically and musically nuanced album, but that simply comes from the natural progression of a singer-songwriter. The 10 tunes found here blend together to form a nice warm, fuzzy sweater with which to take on a long winter.
Ruminations is exactly what its title suggests—a 40-minute look back at everything that’s gone wrong, right and everything in between. It’s not a concept record, of course, but the thematic link is right there in the title and it allows the album to wash over a listener, rather than simply implanting an earworm here or there and using everything else as filler.
Despite a sense of homogeny throughout the record, Ruminations isn’t without its standouts. “Gossamer Thin” is a beautiful little piano ballad that would work as nicely in an old-timey saloon as it does through ear buds on a long train ride home. “Counting Sheep” is a finger-plucked, bittersweet downer obsessed with how a man’s image comes off to the people around him—and, of course, death. “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out” could’ve been a suitable stand-in for the opening theme to “Cheers” with the twinkling piano work and its watering hole vibe. But again, you’ll find that much of what makes these tunes work so well lies in the spaces between these high points.
Oberst has been ruminating for years, and hopefully he’ll be doing it for many more. While his best work may still be found in some of his Bright Eyes albums, Outer South with his Mystic Valley Band and Desaparecidos’ Read Music/Speak Spanish, Ruminations is nevertheless a terrific little album from a veritable master of his craft. Even when the guy’s best stuff is elsewhere, Oberst still comes through to show us all how it’s done, and at the very least, it’s praiseworthy to see an artist continually creating in top form.