“Something brought sad Conor back,” my roommate says to me, half-awed, half-crying. We’re listening to, for the first time, the NPR first listen stream of Conor Oberst’s newest album Ruminations. The track coming out of my laptop that elicited this reaction is “You All Loved Him Once,” a reference to Julius Caesar as well as a not-so-subtle lament Oberst wrote regarding the loss of his fans after the much-publicized rape accusations towards him, accusations that were later found to be false both through evidence and the accuser’s own admission. It’s a topic that Oberst typically avoids in interviews, but here it is now, on his album, with his feelings on it for those curious to hear in lyrics like “He mirrored your confusion, so that you might understand/Then your soul was an experiment, so he drew a diagram/You all loved him once/It ended bad.”
I first heard the song during his performance at Northside Festival over the summer, thinking it was an unusually apt cover before recognizing it was an unreleased track. His album hadn’t been announced yet, and this was the first indicator I had that not only was there one on the way, but that this album would be a considerable tonal change from his past few.
The day finally came and Ruminations was released on all platforms, and I was lucky enough to be front and center for the album release show — an intimate affair (tickets were only available by lottery) born out of a partnership between NPR, Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, and Oberst himself, each of the three having a close working relationship with the other. The beautiful thing about having the long-term cultural cachet Oberst has (his first album was released in 1993, at the age of 13) is that events like this can happen and hold a heavy weight to the fans who are lucky enough to attend. You can feel it in the air at this event; although there was whooping and clapping when NPR Music’s Bob Boilen and WFUV’s Rita Houston brought the artist onstage, and between songs, there was total silence while Oberst was performing. Imaginably, this is out of a fervent respect for both the artist and the situation. No one wants to ruin it for the others. It means too much to those who have the privilege of being there.
Although he began with the first track, “Tachycardia,” and ended with the final track, “Till St. Dymphna Kicks us Out,” the rest of the album was played somewhat out of order. This didn’t reduce its effect. Onstage with him was multi-instrumentalist and singer songwriter Miwi La Lupa, whose presence Oberst explains between songs: “They said I had to go on a solo tour for this record, and I agreed. And then I chickened out. So Miwi’s with me, which is better.”
It’s no surprise that his label, management, whoever, would have wanted him to go on a solo tour. Ruminations is through-and-through a solo album, recorded and produced in 48 hours by Oberst alone over the winter in Omaha, where he and his wife now reside. In the press release, he states that he came into it with no intentions. “I wasn’t expecting to write a record,” he said. “I honestly wasn’t expecting to do much of anything.”
What it turned into was 10 songs, just shy of 40 minutes when put together, which comprise what is probably his best solo work thus far. Despite the fact that Oberst is now at what could be one of the most stable parts of his life (happily married and seemingly less plagued by the substance abuse problems that riddled his earlier music) he manages to tap into something he hasn’t since the earlier days of Bright Eyes, a relatable pain told through unrelatable anecdotes. It is his most autobiographical album since the late 2000s, although anyone’s guess on the inspiration behind the the exact stories depicted in most of the songs is as good as mine. Oberst is notoriously private.
In a way, my roommate is right. Conor Oberst comes onto Ruminations much like an old friend we haven’t seen in awhile. The political version of him that we haven’t seen in years, that he publicly resented for a time, comes back in the references to the Vietnam War and Ronald Reagan on “A Little Uncanny.” There are references to drugs again in many of the songs–“Tachycardia” and “Gossamer Thin” address addiction in different ways, with “Tachycardia” the more detailed of the two, entirely about struggling, while “Gossamer Thin” treats addiction as one in a list of things to be concerned about. “The Rain Follows the Plow” is a flat-out love song, but a painful one, in which a wandering protagonist always makes his way back home to his love, regardless of what he has been through. “Till St. Dymphna Kicks us Out” is a fitting song on which to end the album, as it’s the song that finally finds peace in the pain, with Oberst singing “Oh, you know you shouldn’t say it/So you’re thinking it out loud/Some things we lost are never to be found/But if you’re gonna talk like that/At least buy another round/And we can keep drinking till St. Dymphna kicks us out.”
Through Ruminations, it seems that Conor Oberst has come full circle. The album is as personal and painful as his earlier work, with the increased musical skill and ability to reflect that come with age. He’s no longer ignoring his past or his illnesses, not trying to skate by them, but instead accepting and acknowledging them for what they are and working through them. Lucky for us, he’s processing in the same way he always has — through music.