Conor Oberst has long been considered one of the more mysterious and enigmatic auteurs of independent music, dating back to his breakthrough records at the turn of the millennium. He has, however, recently suffered one of the most challenging periods of his professional and personal life, and what has resulted is perhaps the most intimate, candid collection of songs of his career so far.
Opening track Tachycardia deals explicitly with the ordeal Oberst was put through in 2014 when a woman accused him of sexual assault (an accusation that she later confirmed was “100% false”). Less than a year later, Oberst’s band Desaparecidos cancelled over 20 dates of a tour, citing the singer’s “laryngitis, anxiety and exhaustion”.
He ultimately spent a long winter in his hometown of Omaha, secluded and alone. What emerged was an album that has allowed him to take stock and reflect on his life’s work and his place in the music industry. When he sings on that opening track: “In a courtroom, sweat rolling down my back/It’s a bad dream, I have it seven times a week/No it’s not me, but I’m the one who has to die,” we are immediately granted more of Oberst’s privacy than ever before.
The theme continues on Gossamer Thread, on which he sings about “not wanting to eat or get out of bed”, and “trying to recall what the therapist said”. For long-time fans, this openness will be striking. There is no obfuscation here – this is an uncommonly unguarded mood in which we find the former Bright Eyes man. But he is by no means defeated, and there is a tangible sense that this opportunity to return to his roots, and to allow himself the time to reflect on his accomplishments is an essential part of the healing process. On Barbary Coast (Later), he sings romantically about feeling like Paul Gauguin, apparently relating to the great artist’s voyages into exotic worlds for inspiration, before eventually concluding that returning home is more important still. On a similar note, The Rain Follows the Plow closes with the line, “I know where I belong”.
The album is notable too for its sparse, uncomplicated arrangements, consisting of merely piano, acoustic guitar, Oberst’s naked voice and liberal use of harmonica. The latter in particular will inevitably draw unhelpful comparisons to early Bob Dylan records, when really the emphasis should be on how much of Oberst’s individual character we are given. A more reasonable comparison with Dylan would actually be in his deceptively skilled ability as a melodist. As is the case with so many great lyricists, Oberst tends not to get sufficient credit in this regard, and certainly a track like Til St Dymphna Kicks Us Out will lock into your subconscious as much as any classic pop tune.
It is, however, on the track Counting Sheep that the greatest impact is made. Opening with the lines, “Closing my eyes, counting sheep/Gun in my mouth, trying to sleep,” it is a genuinely shocking song, and testament to the honesty with which this album has been conceived. It is always a possibility that a difficult road to recovery will pass through such challenging phases, but rarely does an artist so bravely expose them in their work. He later sings, “I don’t want to seem needy to anyone, especially you”, and we assume he is talking to us (his commentary on the relationship between himself and his fans is another recurring motif on this album).
There are tracks where Oberst withdraws back into his more customary arms-length, storytelling mode – the Frank Lloyd Wright paean Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch), and the politically fuelled A Little Uncanny – but the lasting impression of Ruminations is of an artist that has forced himself to take a break from the showbiz circus, and reconnect with himself. The ultimate result of that process remains to be seen, but in the meantime, it has left us with a beautifully rendered, intimately personal collection of very fine songs indeed.