Oberst’s latest effort, ‘Ruminations,’ is minimal, yet effective

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Conor Oberst

'Ruminations' offers an honest perspective from the mind of Conor Oberst.

By Josh Fukumae, Staff Writer

Conor Oberst is a singer/songwriter from Omaha, Neb. He has contributed to the world of music with his solo career, various bands, and other musical side projects. Oberst is best known for his work as the vocalist, songwriter, and guitarist for the band Bright Eyes. He is also known for his introspective, honest, melancholy lyrics and obscure references. Notable projects and some of my personal favorite albums from Bright Eyes include “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” “The People’s Key,” and “Fevers and Mirrors.”

“Ruminations” is Oberst’s seventh solo studio album. It was released on October 14, 2016. This album is extremely minimal with Conor playing the piano, guitar, and harmonica on all of the tracks. It was written in his native town of Omaha shortly after he was released from a stay at the hospital due to exhaustion and anxiety related to a brain cyst.

After moving back to Omaha from New York, Oberst recorded all ten of these songs in a span of 48 hours. Oberst takes a minimal, dismal approach to the songwriting on the album, and it seems that it would only appeal to die-hard fans of Oberst or any of his side projects. The scarce instrumentation and brutally honest lyrics make this project extremely sad but also strangely comforting.

The first track on this album is ‘Tachycardia.”This track is a perfect display of Oberst’s ability to create amazing imagery and stories through his lyrics. In this track he discusses his feelings of anxiety and paranoia and how they have started to affect his health. This may also be referenced in the title, ‘Tachycardia,” which is defined as having an abnormally rapid heart rate. Oberst’s decline in health is a reoccurring theme on this album.

The second track, “Barbary Coast,” is a great example of Oberst’s ability to transport you to another world through his lyrics. The title of this track may refer to the actual Barbary Coast in North Africa or the film with the same title. Conor is an extremely observant human being, and he is also able to explain the world around him through his own unique perspective. We also are able to see a little into Oberst’s state of mind and his psyche. The simple chord progressions on this track also help to shine the spotlight on Oberst’s genius songwriting ability.

“Gossamer Thin” is one of my favorite tracks, but it is an exceptionally sad, tragic song. This song may be a first person account from Oberst himself, or he may be writing from someone else’s perspective. The song recounts the life of a person who is addicted to drugs and has come to a point in his life where he is alienated by his family and friends. This character is lost and confused. Although, the sound of the harmonica is usually unpleasant, the use of the instrument towards the end of the track really helped to conclude the song.

The next track on this album is, “Counting Sheep”. In this track, Oberst seems to be extremely open and vulnerable. The transparency that Conor exhibits on this track is admirable, and it can help to feel the listener to feel that they are not alone in the world and that there are many others who deal with anxiety and depression. This song shows us the current state of Oberst’s mental health and is honestly extremely depressing.

“Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch),” is the fifth song on this album. It is possibly an ode to the late Mamah Borthwick, who was in a scandalous relationship with the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. After they came under fire for their relationship they both fled to Europe. They later came back to the United States where Wright built a summer home named Taliesin. Borthwick and her children were killed by a servant named Julian Carlton. After killing Borthwick and her children, he bolted all of the doors and windows shut as he poured gasoline under the doors and set the house ablaze. Carlton claimed seven lives, including his own, and this incident was one of the worst mass murders in Wisconsin history.  This song could possibly be an ode to both Borthwick and Lloyd. After reading the lyrics of the song, it feels like Oberst may be commenting on the temporal nature of material possessions, love, and our own earthly existences. At some points I feel like I am listening to Oberst tell a story rather than listening to a song due to the minimal instrumentation that gives way to the lyrics.

“The Rain Follows the Plow” is the next track. This track may recount some of Oberst’s life story. In the beginning of the track Conor tells us about his religious upbringing, and how he has eventually strayed away from it in an attempt to find himself and his own way of life. This track highlights Oberst’s independent thought process and how he feels that he must find his own way through life, but at the same time still makes it clear that he is struggling to do so.

“A Little Uncanny” was one of my absolute favorite tracks as it had many historical references. Oberst mentions things like the Jane Fonda’s lies and propaganda during the Vietnam War, the marginalization and treatment of people in lower-income areas, and the unfortunate deaths of icons like Christopher Hitchens, Oliver Sacks, Robin Williams, and Sylvia Plath. Not only is Oberst highly self-aware, but he is also very aware of the world around him and its history.

“Next of Kin” is another one of my favorites. This particular track sounds like it could have come off of the Bright Eyes album “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.”This track is one of the most cohesive, coherent tracks on the album. Oberst comes through on this track with very vivid, but also very melancholy lyrics. The first verse stood out the most, as it tells the story of a fatal car crash in which Oberst assumes the identity of the person who has to call the family of the deceased victim, hence the title “Next of Kin.” This character expresses extreme sadness and remorse over the loss of life and having to break the news to the surviving family members.

“You All Loved Him Once” is a track in which Oberst describes his feelings towards fame. It seems that he has a love/hate relationship with prominence in the world of music, as it gives him a platform of sharing his art and making a living off of it. However, fame is a double-edged sword, and he may possibly feel that in the end it’s the fame that could lead to his ultimate demise. At a live show for NPR in New York City, Oberst dedicated this particular track to Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ, John Lennon. All of these figures were idolized by by many, yet they all were killed by those who had once loved them.

The final track, ‘Till St. Dymphna Kicks us Out’, is my absolute favorite on the album. St. Dymphna is the patron saint of nervousness, depression, and mental illness. It is also a name of a bar in New York. This added a lot of depth to the track for me. With his impressive story-telling ability, Oberst is able to take you to new places and make you feel a strange sense of sadness, but also offers a few glimmers of hope throughout this track.

After listening to the album numerous times, I have come to appreciate it mostly for its genius lyrical content and a little peek into the mind of the genius himself. The instrumentation on this album was a little too bare bones and minimal. Most of these songs sounded like demos that Oberst recorded before he could record them in the studio with his band. However, after learning about Oberst’s hospitalization, this album came from a tremendously honest and personal place, and that is what is admirable about Oberst’s work. Overall, this album is noteworthy due to its quality story-telling and lyrical content, and is perfect for those mornings when you want to stay in bed all day and want to listen to sad songs or if you just feel like listening to someone who is brutally honest with their ideas and emotions.