In a year of ups and downs, lefts and rights, and bewildering mix-ups, oddly everything still feels pretty normal. If not better. I have discovered that this is due to Conor Oberst releasing arguably his best project in 10 years earlier this year. A lot of spectacular music came out these last 12 months but I still find myself drifting back to Conor’s sincere exposition. Ruminations is everything I’ve wanted in a new Oberst album from its raw style to poetic and introspective lyricism. I apologize in advance for this long winded blog post but I really wanted to convey the feeling of this album as it is my favourite of 2016.
Ruminations starts off with a little update into Conor’s life these past couple of years. Tachycardia deals right away with the false rape accusation Conor underwent as well as some troubling health late 2015. As a long time listener, I am aware of many interviews where Conor breaths light into his personal struggle with depression and substance abuse and these recent events have definitely taken hold of that as is apparent in this song. Continuing the theme is the song Barbary Coast, a song about temptations that surround Conor in his fame that could lead to rape accusations, troubles with fidelity and his wife. By the end of the song we realize that with all of these struggles Conor wants to remain around because his wife is always understanding and there for him when he returns home. Gossamer Thin is an extension of this idea through being spread too thin while feeling the pressure of remaining faithful among temptation, wanting to instill his honesty to his wife, and maintaining a performer’s lifestyle. It all piles up and leads Conor back to his alcohol abuse time and time again. In his next song, Counting Sheep, we hear a little more about his sickness and being bedridden flirting with thoughts of dying. Yet when his health is up, he finds himself following dated daily routine practices to try and stave of death without even knowing if it is in vain. In Mamah Borthwick we see why Conor has this issue with practicing these routines by comparing his life to that of Frank Lloyd Wright’s. We hear many references to FLW’s architectural accomplishments and how some of them have been wasted or looked past, while others have stood the test of time and still represent something. Conor goes on to say he is not happy with the impression he has left in his time but feels like it may be a waste of time to try and do more.
The Rain Follows the Plow strays from the theme of this album a little by showing some of Conor’s earlier ways of trying to experience as much as possible but in the wrong ways, trying to find a place he belongs, only to realize in his middle age that home has been there for him all along and he never needed to leave. This next song (A Little Uncanny) expands on Conor’s thoughts of his rape accusation and how it affects his life. We hear mentions of Jane Fonda and Ronald Reagan and how they were loved but didn’t know the pain they brought to many people with their decisions. In relation to the album we see that even though Conor was proven innocent, there would still be a number of people in his life that would not look at him the same. Next of Kin is a sad song of realizing that quick success can leave you missing something inside. It can lead to cynicism and a false sense of accomplishment and can steal your youth away. Conor describes meeting two musical icons and not feeling any different about the situation, as if he had lost some innocence long ago. In the very well written You All Loved Him Once the listener learns how some people get thrust into greatness and many things are expected of them, only for those following to be let down in the end. We see how tangible greatness is and how one small fuck up can bring everything crashing around the ones you adore. We get a sense that Conor feels abused by his fans that we only care about the material he puts out and not about him at all. He has become an icon that cannot fulfill our needs forever and when he stops, we will push him aside. The closing song (Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out) shows us how comfortable we can be among people of the same mindset and problems as us. This can cause us to be blind to others and their circumstances in life. Conor relates this more to being “happy” among others who are suffering from depression or substance abuse, knowing that in this crowd of enablers, nobody is going to judge if you drink the suffering away because you are blind to the alternatives.
Ruminations is about thoughts that you can’t seem to break or get over. These thoughts can eat at you from the inside or cause you to act differently on the outside. Expressing these thoughts can be therapeutic and the people that will appreciate what you have to say are your loved ones. And if they truly are your loved ones, they will help you through anything.
There is a great deal to take in throughout this album, stories to hear, and truths told. It seems as though Conor really let his thoughts (or ruminations) take control of his pen. Almost like he had to let people know things, just needed to get stuff off of his chest. I know I’m glad he did, and I’m sure you would be too.