Conor Oberst has been around the indie scene for some time now. Most famously, he’s been the lead man of Bright Eyes since the late ‘90s, in addition to a handful of other collaborations and bands under his belt. But he’s been releasing his own solo material since the age of 13, and now Ruminations is his seventh studio full length, and tenth solo release overall.
On his latest record, Oberst sounds incredibly alone, both in tone and in subject matter. Musically, Ruminations is stripped down to almost nothing. With his voice dead center, the only instrumental support comes from an acoustic guitar, and occasional piano or harmonica. Written and recorded over the course of a few days in the middle of winter, the music is a perfect companion for the desolate heft of his words. It’s almost startling in its emptiness, employing a classic folk artist’s process, made in the same manner as, say, an early Dylan record.
His trademark quivering mid-range voice sounds weary, shaky and almost broken. He tackles many personal issues head on, including his own health struggles. A pounding piano starts the record, with opener “Tachycardia” laying the tonal groundwork for the songs to follow, discussing his deepest troubles. The album is bleak and fragile at times (“Gossamer Thin” and “Counting Sheep”) and moodily contemplative at others (“A Little Uncanny” and “You All Love Him Once”), supported by a ruggedly strummed guitar. “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out” appropriately closes the record, a boozy piano ballad of isolation and self-searching.
In his late 30s, Conor Oberst has been pumping out tunes for 23 years now. Through his vast catalog, he’s established himself as one of the more unique songwriting voices of this young century. Intensely emotional and bare, Ruminations paints a picture of a troubled man trying to find his way through hardship, and has the potential to become a defining record for this well travelled warbler.