Nonesuch Records • October 14th, 2016
By: Michael Smith
*Out of 5
In the winter of 2015, Conor Oberst returned alone to his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, after living in New York City for ten years. There, alone with a piano, harmonica, and acoustic guitar, he penned and recorded an album in forty-eight hours.
As an artist, Oberst has involved himself in an exceptional volume of work. He is perhaps best known as the frontman for the critically acclaimed Bright Eyes – whose modern classic, “First Day of My Life,” has accompanied the birth of more than its fair share of millennial marriages and hopeless romances alike. Oberst also has his name on the rosters of four other bands and on the covers of ten solo albums. Ruminations joins his impressive discography as the latest installment in his body of solo work.
Just as Oberst physically returned to his roots in Nebraska to write this record, Ruminations itself returns musically to the roots upon which Oberst has built his solo, emo-folk style. What Ruminations does presents a bare, stripped down and intimate instrumentation and production. Oberst’s now-signature whining vocals are joined only by alternating piano and acoustic guitar, each occasionally accompanied by harmonica as he sees fit. What you see on the cover art is quite literally what you get on the record but, unfortunately, we’ve heard it all before from Oberst himself, or we’ve heard it better in his other projects.
The image of a lone singer-songwriter retreating into solitude and emerging with a new record bears timely comparison to the preeminent example of this phenomena, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and his retreat to his Wisconsin cabin, during which he composed and produced one of the pillars of modern indie-folk, For Emma, Forever Ago. It’s an attractive story, that of the lone genius retreating from the world only to return with truly great art. Unfortunately, in spite of the similarly fabled origin, Ruminations does not match For Emma, Forever Ago in importance or impact.
There are bright spots on this record, places where the emotional frankness and musical ability of Conor Oberst that we’ve come to know shines through. On “Counting Sheep” he sings of low self esteem over plucked guitar, employing suicidal imagery, themes of social burden, and internal pressure, exemplified in the line, “I’m just trying to be pleasing, to everyone, including you.” It’s these moments of vulnerability that highlight real skill in Oberst’s songwriting, and while they are present on Ruminations, the album is poorly executed with less interesting musical accompaniment and a duller impact than what we know Oberst is very well capable of.
Overall, Ruminations clearly and safely continues the saga of Conor Oberst musically baring his soul for the world to see. Unfortunately, in its safety, the album simply doesn’t live up to what we’ve come to expect from him. On writing this record, Oberst has said that, “Winter in Omaha can have a paralyzing effect on a person but in this case it worked in my favor. I was just staying up late every night playing piano and watching the snow pile up outside the window.” I disagree; Ruminations is disappointing and sees Oberst as the clear victim of winter’s paralysis.
Listen to Ruminations: