Whether he’s going aggro-punk, as on last year’s Desaparecidos re-up Payola, or playing indie Paul Simon on lush Americana albums like 2014’s Upside Down Mountain, Conor Oberst might as well be strumming solo. The longtime Bright Eyes leader sings every song like he’s shivering on your doorstep, unburdening himself of whatever’s on his mind. No matter what he wraps his voice in, that warble is pretty naked.
Ruminations is Oberst unfiltered. He wrote these 10 songs on piano, harmonica, and acoustic guitar last winter, while passing time in snowy Omaha. He later recorded the material in the no-frills fashion it came together, getting everything down in one 48-hour pity-party that wasn’t without justification.
As discussed in a recent New York Magazine profile, the rape accusations Oberst faced in 2013 have left the one-time wunderkind emotionally and physically wrecked. His accuser recanted her statements in 2014, but not before the internet had cast judgment.
Oberst sings of courtroom nightmares on opener “Tachycardia,” a surprisingly lively piano tune named for the medical term for accelerated heart rate. It’s a condition Oberst suffers from, just like the brain cyst he mentions on “Counting Sheep,” a folk ditty that might work for kindergarten sing-alongs were it not for lines like, “Tomorrow is shining like a razor blade / And anything is possible if you feel the same.” It’s a stark sentiment—especially compared to something he sang on 2002’s “Method Acting”: “’Cause I don’t know what tomorrow brings / It’s alive with such possibilities / All I know is I feel better when I sing.”
But singing does still make him feel better. After being cleared of those charges, Oberst couldn’t exactly gloat—he’s smart and sensitive enough to how that would look in a world where female victims of sexual assault are too often branded liars. One option would’ve been to disappear for awhile, but instead, he made a record about wanting to disappear. There are more references to suicide—like the inclusion of Robin Williams and Sylvia Plath on the list of people he misses on the would-be rocker “A Little Uncanny”—and lots of talk about getting drunk.
It works because Oberst keeps the music moving and doesn’t let his voice over-quiver with rage or sadness. He’s rather calm, and his songwriting is strong as ever. On “A Little Uncanny,” when he starts in about Jane Fonda in Vietnam and “ol’ Ronnie Reagan” snookering the poor, it avoids becoming a bad parody of early talking-blues Dylan. On “Next Of Kin”—another piano tune that’s jauntier than expected—he follows a story about a guy losing his girl in a car accident by switching back to himself and complaining about how unmoved he was after meeting Patti Smith and Lou Reed. The situations are hardly analogous, but he somehow sells the comparison.
He only goes too far on “You All Loved Him Once,” where he borrows from Shakespeare (and maybe Blood On The 4-Tracks) to eulogize a man who “mirrored your confusion” and “helped carry your baggage,” only to get “stabbed in the back” by a turncoat public. If the messiah role never really suited Oberst, martyr is much worse.