Album of the Week: Conor Oberst, 'Ruminations'

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Conor Oberst, 'Ruminations'
Conor Oberst, 'Ruminations' (Nonesuch Records)

Conor Oberst has been recording for more than half his life — whether with Bright Eyes, under his own handle or in a few other assorted projects. Oberst hasn't recorded a truly solo album since he was around 15 years old … until now.

Ruminations was inspired when Oberst found himself holed up in his hometown of Omaha, Neb., last winter, after health issues had sidelined him during a tour with his punk band, Desaparecidos. Oberst wrote some songs as he watched the snow pile up, then he headed into ARC Studios, which he built with his friend and Bright Eyes bandmate, Mike Mogis. Oberst put down simple, spare demos of the new songs over a 48-hour period. The songs feature piano or guitar, harmonica and Oberst's voice. Label honchos heard the demos and loved them enough to suggest putting them out as is.

The result is a touching, solo acoustic album, which isn't the trendiest concept in this high-tech, electronic music world we live in. Making an album like this is almost akin to Dylan plugging in 1965, it's so unexpected. But there is something about the human voice and simple accompaniment in its unadorned form with no electronic enhancements, and it works particularly well on this poetic batch of songs that appear to focus on the darker and more fragile side of the human condition.

These songs almost demand to be performed solo, as any additional elements might deter from Oberst's lyrics. He touches on everything — from death in the song "Mamah Borthwick" (which was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright's murdered girlfriend), to a racing heartbeat in "Tachycardia." Oberst also has his ode to lost heroes on the track, "A Little Uncanny," where he mentions, "I miss Christopher Hitchens, I miss Oliver Sacks, I miss poor Robin Williams, I miss Sylvia Plath."

Drinking is another theme that pops up frequently; on "Barbary Coast," he sings, "I don't want to feel stuck / I just want to get drunk before noon"; he busks about his favorite East Village watering hole on the song, "Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out"; and he laments, "Get to drunk and you can't perform / something dies when star is born" on "Next of Kin."

Conor Oberst is, first and foremost, a songwriter. It's a real treat to hear these songs in such a raw and fragile state. Oberst shows us he is a living, breathing human being with his new album, Ruminations.

Resources


Conor Oberst - official site

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  • Conor Oberst performs in The Current studio Conor Oberst says he doesn't really like surprises, but his next album, 'Ruminations,' came about somewhat surprisingly. One of the heads at Oberst's label 'just really liked the recording and he suggested that we just put it out,' Oberst recalls. 'I thought it was an interesting idea.' Oberst visits The Current's studio to play songs from the new album and to chat with host Bill DeVille.
  • Conor Oberst performs at Rock the Garden 2015 As the sun started to set behind the Rock the Garden stage, Conor Oberst delivered the day one's most pensive set. Stream Oberst's Rock the Garden 2015 performance with the Felice Brothers in its entirety.

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