Back in his Bright Eyes heyday, Conor Oberst once released two separate albums on the same day, and even when he wasn’t being so prolific he was still writing songs that overflowed with ideas—ten-dollar words shoehorned into every stanza, Serious Artist ambitions worn on his sleeve. He’s always come across like a guy for whom songwriting is as natural as breathing, and success came perhaps a bit too soon. But something funny’s happened along the way: he’s boned up on songcraft, learned to write with polish, even developed an ability to self-edit. You can hear it best on the loose and limber country-rock albums he made with The Mystic Valley Band—the most satisfying music he’s released to date—and you can hear it again on his new one, albeit in a totally different sonic context.
It’s called Ruminations, and it is what it claims to be: a series of ponderous reflections that abide and even cultivate solitude, finding the melancholy romance in moments of quiet introspection. Oberst recorded the album almost entirely with piano and acoustic guitar, his nervous warble occasionally sharing space with a harmonica’s buzz. The sessions took place in his home state of Nebraska, in the aftermath of a health scare, which might explain why the opening lyric is about a mass grave. Oberst sounds like he’s in a vulnerable headspace, and the frayed nerves of these songs make his typically cracked vocals sound more affecting than ever.
But what really makes the album land is the relatively tight writing. Yes, there is a tangential reference to Ronald Reagan here, an aside about Christopher Hitchens there—these weird little detours always coming across as rather mirthless, when the one thing the album could really use is some decent jokes—but just listen to how the opening piano chords of “Tachycardia” tumble out in the shape of surprisingly buoyant pop, closer to Another Side of Bob Dylan’s whimsy than to Nebraska’s starkness. And check the economy with which he strings together imagery on “Counting Sheep”: “Life is a gas / What can you do? / Catheter piss / Fed through a tube / Cyst in the brain / Blood on the bamboo.” So maybe it’s not a barrel of laughs, but it’s not at all a bad song. There’s a restraint here that feels hard won, and that makes Ruminations’ tattered edges feel honest rather than simply indulgent.