Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Ruminations on Conor Oberst's Ruminations

Given that I'm a huge fan of Bright Eyes (especially Lifted and Fevers & Mirrors), it's perhaps odd that until a few weeks ago I'd never listened to anything Conor Oberst released under his own name. There have been almost half as many Conor Oberst albums (4) as there have been Bright Eyes albums (9), and yet it wasn't until the 9th of this month - the day we learned that Donald Trump would be the next President of the United States - that I bothered to buy one of them.

Ruminations came out last month, and it's *wonderful*. I quickly formed a closer bond with this album than I formed with either of the last two Bright Eyes LPs; Cassadaga and The People's Key were both fine records, but in my view they lacked the intimacy and feeling of Oberst's best material.

Happily, if it's intimacy and feeling you want, Ruminations have plenty of both. In fact, it's possibly the most intimate thing Oberst has ever recorded - the songs aren't as painfully personal as those on, say, Fevers & Mirrors, but just because it's a less emotionally voyeuristic listening experience doesn't mean that you won't feel like you're right there in the room with him. This entire ten-track cycle features precisely four instruments - piano, acoustic guitar, harmonica, and Oberst's voice - and the stripped-down arrangements (coupled with the album's ultra-organic, frill-free production) create the illusion that you're hanging out in Oberst's own home recording studio, watching as he darts back and forth between his piano bench and his guitar stool, rushing to commit all of his latest musical and lyrical ideas to tape.

And those ideas pack a hefty emotive wallop, too. The first track whose lyrics I really noticed was A Little Uncanny, but that probably had a lot to do with its references to Ronald Reagan and the fact that I was listening to it in the wake of that Trump election victory. With a few more listens under my belt, I can now confirm that the standout track is Gossamer Thin, which features a lovely, dancing piano part and Oberst's best piece of character-centric storytelling since Waste of Paint from Lifted:

Actually, for an album that presents itself as one guy's musings blurted out unrefined, there are a lot of three-dimension characters here that really sparkle. Special mention goes to the widower on Next of Kin: Oberst's narrator has the sad responsibility of informing this man that his partner has been killed in a car accident, and then we skip forward in time to find that her dressing gown still "hangs on the bedroom door, though she's been dead for a year or more - he buried her by the sycamore so that he could keep her close. It broke his heart and it made him old; tried to rebuild, but it just erodes. Some people sat that's the way it goes, but he don't feel that way." It's a deft and heartbreaking piece of songwriting, the sort of thing I thought Oberst had stopped doing in favour of the weird spiritual / psychic stuff that characterised Cassadaga and The People's Key.

If, like me, you found those last couple of Bright Eyes albums a bit too stodgy and longed for a return to the naked likes of LuaWhen the Curious Girl Realises She is Under Glass, and the aforementioned Waste of Paint, it gives me great pleasure to assure you that Ruminations is exactly what you need in your life right now.

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