When an album yields praise, much of the credit often goes to the assumed meticulous toiling done by the artist. Conor Oberst’s Ruminations, however, comes with the knowledge that the artist put in little more than a day’s work recording the album. But while the tracks came about quickly, they were likely in the works long before Oberst himself even realized.
In the spring of 2014, Conor Oberst released Upside Down Mountain, a lush, expansive collection of songs with glimpses of an optimism not often heard in the singer/songwriter’s work. Cheerier or not, the album’s release was tarnished by a damning online comment from a fan who falsely claimed Oberst had raped her back in 2003. With legal action pending and the accusation already dismissed by her own named witnesses, the woman, who went by the pseudonym Joanie Faircloth, eventually recanted. The ordeal, albeit brief, caused Oberst severe professional and personal strife, and the spiral would continue into 2015 when he was hospitalized for a health scare that led to the discovery of a cyst on his brain. And so, after two years of turmoil, Oberst moved home to Omaha, Nebraska, where to his admitted surprise, he wrote Ruminations.
Startlingly sparse in contrast to Upside Down Mountain, the album sounds like what you might expect from an artist finding his way out of a trying time. Oberst pounds the piano at the start of opener “Tachycardia” and brings the themes of the record right to the forefront. He’s back in his hometown (“I’m a stone’s throw from everyone I love and know”), he’s still haunted by the Faircloth accusation (“In a courtroom, sweat rolling down my back; it’s a bad dream, I have it seven nights a week”), he has health issues on the mind (the song’s title refers to the medical condition of an abnormally accelerated heart rate) and his temporary escape from it all often involves alcohol (“In a dark bar, the world just melts away”). Things then become particularly bleak in the tracks “Gossamer Thin” and “Counting Sheep,” where Oberst sings about spider-silkish fragility and the deflated helplessness of poor health.
With some rugged strumming, the mood picks up a bit in “A Little Uncanny,” perhaps the only track that sounds like it would be better suited as a full-band recording. Between his freewheelin’ harmonica, a peculiarly dated reference to Jane Fonda and the particular parlance of “old Ronnie Reagan,” Oberst almost seems to be winking at the tired Dylan comparisons critics have made throughout his career. But he’s very much his own man later in the song when he lists off departed personal heroes: “I miss Christopher Hitchens, I miss Oliver Sacks, I miss poor Robin Williams, I miss Sylvia Plath.” And while Oberst continues to admire these noted names, the same can’t be said for the congregation of scorners he addresses in “You All Loved Him Once.” While the “him” in question seems cryptic by design, it’s almost impossible not to suspect Oberst’s inspiration came from those who swiftly assumed him guilty and abandoned him in late 2013 (“So to satisfy the philistines, you stabbed him in the back”). Closing the album out is “Till Saint Dymphna Kicks Us Out,” a fitting end that sees Oberst recalling overstaying with friends at an East Village bar which, coincidentally or not, shares a name with the patron saint of mental health.
Compositionally, Ruminations is a lot like the act of moving back to your hometown in that what may seem like a step backwards can turn out to be a much-needed reboot. Oberst’s popularity, after all, is founded on the acoustic gut-punches Bright Eyes would so devastatingly deliver years ago. At 36, he’s far from the 22-year-old feeling dizzy from the world’s spin, but the signature weariness in his voice is more justified than ever. And though these songs were recorded hastily by some standards, their welding of forlorn lyricism and comforting listenability makes the songwriter admirable not just for his craftsmanship, but for his ability to pull through an arduous time with what could be a benchmark album in his already prolific career. For that, Conor Oberst deserves praise.