“Catheter piss, fed through a tube,” Conor Oberst warbles on ‘Counting Sheep’ as if singing his own hospital charts, “blood pressure’s fine, 121 over 75…”.
Oberst has mastered garage punk with Desaparecidos, formed folk supergroups and covered country, psych, electronica and more with his most celebrated band Bright Eyes. For some, however, the 36-year-old is at his most radiant alone at a piano or guitar, ruminating poetically in his perma-trembling voice, as if every English word reminds him of having his cat put down. For them, his on-tour meltdown from laryngitis, anxiety and exhaustion last year was a blessing; it forced him home to Omaha, Nebraska to write plaintive piano folk songs late into the night. Oberst, fragile and regretful, in perfect isolation. A recipe for hallowed magic.
Throw in what sounds like one of Dylan’s old harmonicas and you get tenth solo album ‘Ruminations’. Alone, his open-diary laments gain added lustre and import. Wistful piano opener ‘Tachycardia’ dissects his recurring nightmare of being sentenced to death, while ‘Barbary Coast (later)’ has him confessing “the modern world is a… stimulant, it’s pornography, it takes all my will not to turn it off” and ‘The Rain Follows The Plow’ recalls an errant Catholic youth full of petty theft and casual sex. Elsewhere, suicide, sickness, frailty, aging and addiction lend the album a pallid hue, as if the songs themselves were shuffling through the corridors of a psychiatric ward with bandaged wrists.
Oberst’s evocative character studies add intrigue throughout. The deceptively upbeat ‘Gossamer Thin’ might as well be called ‘The Ballad Of Pete Doherty’, so expertly does it outline a charismatic heroin addict building a following with poetry readings. ‘Next Of Kin’ is a series of touching portraits of the bereaved. Into these tales Oberst weaves his own psychological fractures. On the mildly demented ‘It’s A Little Uncanny’ he reflects on the influence deceased figures like Robin Williams, Sylvia Plath and Ronald Reagan had on his life. On album keystone ‘Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)’, Oberst references the buildings of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright as metaphors for the art and relationships he wants to build, something “sacred ‘til the end”. A structure in which ‘Ruminations’ is a load-bearing beam.