Conor Oberst is now at the ripe old age of 36 with 13 albums in his impressive discography, including indie-folk smash hit I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. Through Ruminations, his latest album, Oberst seems to be yet again the unreliable narrator on the outside looking in. However, the narrator here seems to feel more mature and quite nostalgic, as if the very occurrences he is singing about happened a very long time ago. Recorded in 48 hours with merely a piano, harmonica, and Oberst himself, Ruminations tells the age-old tale of the alienation of substance abuse, the state of being frozen in isolation but also having the maturity to look back and reflect on one’s past actions through a new lens.
The album opens with Tachycardia, a straight-up folk tune with lonely, hollow piano resonance. For an opener, it sounds strangely cathartic, as if the album begins and ends full-circle (spoiler: it does). Blending the two tones of his earlier I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Letting Off the Happiness, “Tachycardia” is by far the most reminiscent of Bright Eyes on the entire LP. However, the album as a whole strays away from any hint at backing vocals or extraneous additions, in contrast with Oberst’s earlier works.
“Tachycardia” is by far one of the best tunes on the LP, as successes on Ruminations fall few and far between: the album starts off with a folk-like roar, but ends in monotony. The aforementioned first track lures familiar listeners in, but the album will certainly leave them disappointed if they expect the self-deprecating (but lighthearted) Oberst. In traditional Oberst-style, the songwriter does not put himself into the story. While this form of storytelling is not necessarily a weakness (as he has made a name for himself through this method of writing), Oberst creates a distance from himself and the events unfolding, and subsequently a distance between himself and the audience. Indeed, so-called maturity seems to get the best of Oberst on the album, as the lyrics fall flat from being youthful. Examples of such are “Mama Borthwick” and “Rain Follows the Plow,” two deep cuts that are simply uninspiring, undecipherable from each other and easily forgettable.
“A Little Uncanny” attempts to pick up the unvaried tempo, but to no avail: awkward upstrums and fluctuating vocal melody are off-putting additions to an already repetitive tirade. There are a few very clever one-liners that you can really feel in your gut, but are sadly glossed over by cliches and oversimplified imagery. Between monotonous verses and a superfluous use of harmonica, Ruminations is an unrelatable and distant album that previous fans will most likely fail to enjoy.
However, there are a few gems that stand out: “Gossamer Thin” is one, with its inclusion of a rolling piano melody and vivid lyrical composition. In fact, the lyrics on this track absolutely save the song, as Oberst’s poetry seems to now be catchier than his melodies. The piano hook is quite intriguing, but never seems to reach a satisfying conclusion and thus falls flat. “Counting Sheep” is another treasure, as Oberst sounds extremely Dylan-esque. With varying guitar patterns and a little more groove than given on other tracks, “Counting Sheep” is the only song on the album that draws an engaging contrast between old age and youth.
Yet, the biggest success on Ruminations is not the cathartic opener, or the poetic lyricism, but the album closer, “Til St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out”. With punchy, witty piano gusto and minor shifts reminiscent of Billy Joel, the closing track is by far the highlight of the entire album. “St. Dymphna” provides us with a bittersweet cathartic ending, illustrating Oberst finally breaking down the metaphorical walls of isolation and talking optimistically about the future. He explains the relationship between the passage of time and the unvarying nature of life, and how that relationship is strangely comforting.
Oberst has made himself a household indie-rock name over the past decade through his depiction of friendly isolation: yet, Ruminations is anything but friendly. Distant and less youthful, Oberst seems to be frozen in monotony and stagnation.