“It’s a mass grave…”
The first words of “Tachycardia,” the first track on Conor Oberst’s raw, open wound of an album titled Ruminations, set the tone. In 10 songs, the prolific singer-songwriter explores the somber emotions that have gnawed at him during a period of not-insignificant personal strife. In 2013, a female fan posted an accusation online claiming Oberst had raped her after a 2003 Bright Eyes concert. Though she later recanted and apologized for “[making] up those lies about him to get attention while I was going through a difficult period in my life,” the internet didn’t hesitate to condemn Oberst in its rush to judgment. The charge and public reaction wounded Oberst: professionally, spiritually, and physically. He was hospitalized at one point in 2015 after he was diagnosed with high-blood pressure, also known as, yup, tachycardia.
Ruminations is a snapshot of Oberst’s retreat—as in refuge, not strategic withdrawal. Written and recorded in Nebraska, the songs are musically spare, with a harmonious blend of piano, harmonica, and gentle guitar. Lyrically, the songs are both cathartic and confessional. “I don’t want to eat or get out of bed,” he writes in the melancholic delight “Gossamer Thin.” “I try to recall what the therapist said.” In the harmonica-driven “Barbary Coast (Later),” he sings, “Cause the modern world is a sight to see. It’s a stimulant, it’s pornography. It takes all my will not to turn it off.”
Not every song feels completely refined, with themes and characters that still feel like a work in progress. “Next of Kin” begins with a phone call after an interstate car crash but then lurches in strange directions, and “A Little Uncanny”—with it’s starring roles for Jane Fonda and Ol’ Ronnie Reagan—seems almost a parody of a Conor Oberst homage to Bob Dylan.
For good and bad—mostly very good—Ruminations is a vulnerable Conor Oberst cracked open, spilling his soul. Pain is its recurring theme and though Oberst comes close to wallowing in it, the gift is his ability to embrace and absorb it and make it something beautiful. It’s what we want from our best artists, isn’t it?
A spare, confessional modern-day folk song
A devastating opener, backed by a harmonica and delicate piano keys