Following a health scare last year and the cancellation of the Desaparecidos tour, Conor Oberst, one of the most prolific musicians around today (Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk, Mystic Valley Band to name a few) retreated to a cabin in Omaha with nothing but a piano and a garage full of firewood for company. He wasn’t expecting to write a record, but over the course of the Winter songs began to emerge.
The songs were subsequently recorded in 48 hours with his Bright Eyes bandmate Mike Mogis at the controls. Mogis said that after hearing the demos he feared the worst for Oberst, such was the tone and texture of the material and obsession with death and mortality. Indeed the first line we hear on the album is “it’s a mass grave”. Regardless of this, they persisted in getting the songs down over a 48 hour period and Ruminations was born. It finds Oberst very much on his own. And you can hear it and feel it.
‘Counting Sheep’ opens with the astonishing bracing couplet “closing my eyes counting the sheep, gun in my mouth trying to sleep, everything ends, everything has to”. This instantly paints a picture of the headspace Oberst finds himself in for this song. The verses are dark but the darkness lifts ever so slightly on the choruses. The subject matter is heavy but the song is eminently listenable, even though it touches on Obersts recovery in hospital following his illness. There are more stark lines in this song but to quote here would take away from their impact.
Oberst’s unique ability to make even the empty spaces in his songs sing, is employed to great effect here. ‘Mamah Borthwick’ is a great example of this, evoking memories of ‘First Day Of My Life’ from the 2005 album I’m wide awake, It’s Morning. On ‘A Little Uncanny’ Oberst rocks out as much as he can within the bounds of the instrumentation while singing about Ronald Reagan and how he got him to “read those Russian authors through and through”. With a great chorus and a more universal story-telling approach, this is one of the best tracks on the album. He even manages to pay tribute to Robin Williams and Sylvia Plath among others. ‘Next of Kin’ follows the same kind of template and works well.
Closing track ‘Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out’ is another highlight which on first listen is about a drinking session, but takes on another meaning when you realise that St. Dymphna is the patron saint of the nervous, emotionally disturbed and mentally ill.
Conor Oberst’s prolific nature has seen the oft-heard Ryan Adam’s argument levelled at him in the past. The logic goes that if it takes 48 hours to record an album and a few months to write it, what would it be like if he spent a long time quality controlling his output, editing, whittling it down and polishing it, condensing three albums into one. The answer I believe is that some of these songs would never see the light of day. Oberst, while prolific, is always in the moment, and to take that away from him would diminish his return and that of these songs significantly.
While some of this album is an unflinching, uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding and essential listen, all of the songs are in context with each other and deserve to be heard as a collection. Cherry-picking a few of these songs and releasing them in two years time buried in amongst another completely different batch of songs from a different time in his life would be ultimately pointless. They should be experienced now as the artist intended.