Release Date: October 14th, 2016
Producer: Mike Mogis
Somewhere on each release with Bright Eyes album, the rotating band of musicians/buddies of Conor Oberst lay down their instruments and grab a drink. What are left are the listener and Oberst, who is either perched down on the piano bench or with guitar in hand, with the only other accompaniment being the occasional harmonica. The further back into his catalog, the more frequent these moments are found, as these make up much of the defining narrative around Oberst’s persona as an artist and an alt-folk hero. “June on the West Coast,” “When the Curious Girl Realizes She is Under Glass,” “Going For the Gold,” “Waste of Paint,” “Ladder Song.” It is as if the intimate nature of these songs are so closely tied to Oberst himself, that its effectiveness would be comprised by including more individuals in the mix.
In 2011, Bright Eyes released The People’s Key, which simultaneously retired the band of Oberst, producer Mike Mogis, and multi-instrumentalist and arranger Nate Walcott. In the 5 years since (and on and off for a decade before), Oberst has continued to deliver with Desaparecidos, Monsters of Folk, and the Mystic Valley Band. On Ruminations, Oberst is bringing it all back home, having relocated to his native Omaha and reuniting with Mogis.
It’s ironic that a musician that, even when he performed as Bright Eyes, was seen as a solo artist even as nearly every song he has released to this point features several other contributors, often to the degree of robust, orchestral arrangements. Ruminations is Oberst’s first true solo album in an over 20 year career. For fans who have been around since those earlier recordings, it is a familiar setting, but after the plaintive “Tachycardia,” which reminds us that sometimes truth is more heartbreaking than fiction (touching on Oberst’s successful public legal battle to clear his name of a rape charge) and the blue love ballad of “Barbary Coast (Later),” we are trained to expect a pick-up in tempo and dynamics.
What follows is “Gossamer Thin,” where the homecoming is complete. Oberst’s heart seems to beat in 6/8 time, and even before his voice enters you know that you are listening to one of his compositions. Hitting all the marks, there are ambiguously autobiographical passages: “Rings ’round his eyes / Tracks down his arm / His fans are confused and his friends are alarmed,” but it reads more like a condemnation of kinds of self-inflicted scars. It’s clear minutes into Ruminations that this is not a driving record, not really fit for the house music at the bar. Recorded alone, it is meant to be absorbed alone. The only exception would be communally witness these songs in a live setting. Time will tell how well the album, which is released on Nonesuch, will reach new fans, but there could hardly be a more intriguing introduction to Oberst’s style of songwriting and delivery.
Mogis’s presence is noteworthy. Here he constructs an Omaha basement around the mix and positions us 10 feet away, centered in front of the songwriter. It’s a true show of range and restraint to let the two or three instruments that exist on the track feel like a complete arrangement. Lyrically, Oberst is pointed and at times a bit fatigued by the realities of his life, and he can even deliver punchlines as in “A Little Uncanny” when he says of Ronald Reagan: “But it’s a little uncanny / What he managed to do / Got me to read those Russian authors through and through.” Throughout the rest of the album, a recurring theme seems to be identifying the common faults of us in the modern age that we don’t often know we are making: Our ability to elevate heroes then tear them down (“You All Loved Him Once”), fleeing from or not accepting reality (“Next of Kin”).
The album’s most gut-wrenching moments come during “Counting Sheep,” which begins with the couplet “Closing my eyes, counting sheep / Gun in my mouth, trying to sleep.” What follows is a brutally honest, sometimes macabrely humorous but more morose view from a hospital bed. The kicker is Oberst’s assertion that, despite his unfortunate current state, people shouldn’t feel sorry for him, but for those that his situation is affecting (“I just want to be easy, acceptable / I don’t want to seem needy to anyone, especially you.”)
Ruminations is such a quiet, introspective album (even by Oberst standards) that it is hard to stand out among either his catalog or what constitutes the “singer-songwriter” genre. It is an affecting listen though, and has the potential to be a favorite of fans of Bright Eyes or Oberst’s work with the MVB.