Mortality looms large on Conor Oberst’s seventh album, Ruminations, though it’s not death itself that concerns the singer-songwriter, but rather the malaise that can come from, or lead to, a diminished quality of life. Last year, Oberst suffered a major health scare, and he’s used that experience to populate this album with characters who struggle with maladies both natural and self-inflicted. Recorded in just 48 hours during a retreat to his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska last winter, Ruminations departs from the robust, full-band arrangements and polished production of 2014’s Upside Down Mountain. Oberst strips his songs down to the bare essentials, each track featuring his quavering voice accompanied only by piano or acoustic guitar and squalls of Dylan-esque harmonica, an approach that lends the album a minimalism that allows Oberst to create his rawest and most earnest album in years.
The melancholic characters Oberst gives voice to throughout Ruminations are prone to drowning in alcohol or leaning on religion when, as described on the highlight “Gossamer Thin,” they’re stretched to the point that they’re barely there at all. These are downtrodden people who are stuck in place, isolated and claustrophobic, overworked or shiftless, but in either case bereft of the nerve to change their situation. In turns, they struggle to sleep and can’t stay awake, and Oberst tells us their fortunes through the imagery of coffee grounds and cigarette butts, carnivals and flea markets, dive bars and seedy motels. Like the man who needs a drink to steady his racing heart on “Tachycardia,” whom Oberst embodies when he sings, “I’m a stone’s throw/From everyone I love and know/But I can’t show up looking like I do,” these people are so frayed and forlorn that they’re unable to grasp the happiness that seems so tauntingly close.
In less capable hands, Ruminations’s sad, lonely songs would be mired in abject misery rather than acting as a lugubrious form of catharsis as they do here. Oberst breathes pained, desperate life into his characters, for whom “Every morning’s a desert/Every night is a flood,” and as a result they “just want to get drunk before noon.” Whether it’s the somber line “Gun in my mouth/Trying to sleep” from “Counting Sheep” or the narrator of “A Little Uncanny” missing “poor Robin Williams” and Sylvia Plath, suicide is treated as a comforting notion that’s nevertheless another option impossible for these characters to actualize; the singer-songwriter deftly uses the inevitability of death as a source of anxiety only when it relates to losing others.
As he moves through the vivid vignettes contained within these 10 songs, Oberst is at his strongest when he’s clearly hewing close to his own experience, as when he mentions a personal diagnosis from last year’s hospitalization (“Catheter piss/What can you do?/Cyst on the brain/Blood on the bamboo”), but he saturates even his most imaginative scenarios with believable, deep-rooted heartache. The haste with which Ruminations came together does cause it to show its strings on occasion. Lines like “a barefoot child playing in the rain” and “It would take a time machine/To fulfill all of my fantasies” are maudlin and clumsy, respectively, while “You All Loved Him Once,” wrapped as it is in messianic overtones, comes off heavy-handed. Yet the beauty of Ruminations lies in experiencing Oberst so off the cuff, its minor flaws absorbed into a broader texture sketched here in such elemental form.