I find myself at the front end of a four day weekend and it feels good. I’ve already wasted the first half my day, sleeping in and waking up groggy and unfocused, but I’m determined not to waste the second. I’ve got the writing bug and I’m going to do something about it, starting right here with this review.
I know this is another five star review – the fifth one in the last 14 albums. I tried to mark it down, I really did, but I just couldn’t help myself. So you’ll just have to forgive me if I once again wax a little poetic – the album was going to anyway.
Disc 1071 is…Ruminations
Artist: Conor Oberst
Year of Release: 2016
What’s up with the Cover? A man, his piano, and his harmonica. That pretty much sums up this album.
How I Came To Know It: I read a review of it somewhere and it sounded interesting. When I listened to it, I really liked what I heard so I did what I do in those circumstances – I bought it.
How It Stacks Up: I only have two Conor Oberst albums; this one and 2014’s “Upside Down Mountain” (reviewed back at Disc 961). I like them both a whole lot, but I’m going to give the edge to “Upside Down Mountain”.
Ratings: 5 stars
When is lo-fi too lo-fi for its own good? On “Ruminations” Conor Oberst puts that question to the test and then some, combining production so sparse it almost sounds like a series of outtakes and demos with songwriting that is so sublime you forgive him for all the hollowness.
It helps when the song lyrics are wrapped in a thoughtful hollowness themselves. “Ruminations” is an apt name for this record, as Conor Oberst digs deep into himself. He leaves you with the impression of a man tortured by his own relentless need to examine the world in all its dreadful glory, while occasionally retreating into booze or women. Even these retreats are strategic, feeding new perspectives back into his work.
Sometimes the lessons are from Oberst’s perspective, and sometimes he shifts to view the world through characters as self-examined and troubled as he is. Sometimes the line gets so blurred between Oberst and his creations you’re not sure where one ends and the other begins.
Musically all you’re going to get on this record is Oberst’s frail, evocative vocals and either a lone guitar or piano played competently, if a bit rough around the edges. Occasionally he throws in a bit of harmonica, which comes at you like the swell of a full orchestra set against the thin emptiness of the production. “Two instruments!” your ears rejoice, before settling back into the quiet again.
That quiet lets you focus on Oberst’s calm, deliberate delivery. He is like Leonard Cohen with his evocative and deeply personal language, and like Bob Dylan in his keen phrasing and social observation. It is heady company to keep, but Oberst manages it with humility and dignity.
“Ruminations” goes to many a dark place, exploring anxiety, depression, alcoholism and suicide with an unflinching directness. On “Tachycardia” a waitress despairs:
“On a slow day the rain against the windowpane
Of the café she spills the coffee grounds
And the same thought hits her like a cinderblock
Life is an odd job that she don’t got the nerve to quit.”
And on “Barbary Coast” Oberst gives insight into the glare of the world, as seen through the eyes of the artist:
“Tried to lose myself in the primitive
In Yosemite, like John Muir did
But his eyes were blue and mine are red and raw.
“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.”
And the loss of a loved one on “Next of Kin”:
“Her bathrobe hangs on the bedroom door
Though she’s been dead for a year or more
He buried her by the sycamore
So that he could keep her close.
It broke his heart, and it made him old
Tries to rebuild but it just erodes
Some people say that’s the way it goes
But he don’t feel that way.”
Yeah, it is grim stuff and the lack of any distraction from the basic melody and the heartfelt delivery makes it even harder to hear. But it also opens your soul, lifting your spirit even as it confronts you with the world and all its awful weight.
Oberst sounds genuinely tortured throughout the record, as he sings about the loss of both innocence and the idols that could help steer you through it. The reference to Christopher Hitchens chokes me up every time I hear it. I miss Hitchens as well.
My one frustration with this record isn’t about the record at all. It’s Oberst’s annoying decision to release full band versions of all the same songs six months later on “Salutations”. I tried to avoid it, but the songs are so damned good now I’ve got to go buy that record as well.