“Some things go south and they never turn around,” Conor Oberst sighs, in his distinctive Omaha whine, toward the end of Ruminations, his remarkable new LP. It’s a sentiment that squares with the rest of the album, which is at turns bitter, insightful, angry, sorrowful, funny, and self-pitying. Written after a period marked by health problems and a potentially career-ending controversy, Ruminations mostly ruminates on Oberst’s pet concerns — emotional and mental illness, and the collective psychosis that enables celebrity of the political, religious, and show-business persuasions. Musically, Ruminations is the most stripped-down album Oberst has made since his teens, centering on Oberst’s voice, guitar, occasional piano, and wheezing, Dylanesque harmonica. Recorded in around 48 hours, many of the songs sound like they were written shortly before they were laid down, before Oberst had time to revise or reconsider their implications.
These trappings suggest a redux of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska actually recorded in Nebraska. But Oberst is less concerned with the death of the American dream than bearing witness to the last glimmers of an accomplished, drawn-out youth. On Ruminations, Oberst is his own Charlie Starkweather, seeking to murder pain and provoke catharsis amid the barren landscape of his personal headspace. Which is to say, he’s finally all grown up.
I’ve been playing Ruminations a lot in the past few weeks, along with The Studio Albums 2000-2011, a box set collecting six LPs that Oberst recorded with his most popular band, Bright Eyes, as his indie fame surged, crested, and then receded. Ruminations aligns with those records in unsurprising ways — from his early 20s to his mid-30s, Oberst has remained an incurable sad-sack who co-mingles the personal and the political more effectively than any singer-songwriter of his generation. Ruminations feels like a culmination of those earlier records, which sometimes purposely, more often not — charts Oberst’s uneasy odyssey not just from boy to man, but from underground hero to indie superstar to an uncertain place between those poles.
In the prime of Bright Eyes, Oberst was a defining indie-rocker of the ’00s, singing NPR-friendly anthems of romantic longing and spiritual questing that resonated with 20-somethings searching for meaning in the shadow of 9/11 and the Iraq War. Oberst seemed to embrace the mantle of generational figurehead, touring with Bruce Springsteen and lambasting George W. Bush on The Tonight Show. His records were emblematic of their time, but then that time passed. Now, it’s been almost a decade since Oberst resonated as a significant pop-cultural figure.