Jonah Bayer (United Nations) Thinks Conor Oberst is Writing the Best Songs of His Career

Bayer ruminates on Oberst’s Ruminations.

Although a tragic year in many respects (rest in peace David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen…), 2016 has undoubtedly been an amazing 365 days for music. So amazing, in fact, that our contributors weren’t able to cover every incredible release. That changes now. From Conor Oberst’s Ruminations to Kanye West’s long-awaited The Life of Pablo, from now until 2017, the Talkhouse will be honoring the records we missed this year.
– Brenna Ehrlich, Talkhouse Music Editor-in-Chief

It’s kind of weird to think of Conor Oberst as an adult, despite the fact that he’s a thirty-six-year-old man. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that, for much of his career, the word “wunderkind” has followed him around — ever since he started self-releasing cassettes in the early ’90s. Or maybe it’s because, even though his music is constantly evolving, its creator has always seemed immune to aging, an omniscient narrator who knows our darkest impulses and boils them down into couplets beyond our own abilities of articulation.

Last summer, Oberst’s frenzied political punk act Desaparecidos released Payola, their first album in thirteen years — one that saw Oberst singing about the impending apocalypse behind a matted mane of stringy hair, proving that teenage angst doesn’t have an expiration date. These two widely spaced-out releases were paralleled a few months ago when Oberst’s long-time label Saddle Creek released Bright Eyes: The Studio Albums 2000–2011, a six-LP retrospective box set beginning with Oberst’s caterwauling 2000 breakthrough Fevers and Mirrors and culminating with Bright Eyes’ most recent release, 2011’s The People’s Key.

When listened to in succession, these albums show the dramatic arc of Oberst’s career.

When listened to in succession, these albums show the dramatic arc of Oberst’s career, ranging from the messy folk of Fevers to the ambitious literary bent of 2002’s Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground as well as the Americana-tinged Im Wide Awake, It’s Morning and electronically inspired Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, which were released simultaneously in 2005. The final two Bright Eyes releases, Cassadaga (2007) and The People’s Key, may not have received the same acclaim as some of their predecessors, but still hold up just as well — and if you think that Oberst’s band grew safe later in their career, perhaps you missed the expertly integrated blast beats on The People’s Key standout track “Jejune Stars.”

All of this brings us to the present moment. Ruminations is technically the seventh album that Oberst has recorded under his own name, and in execution it’s reminiscent of the self-released cassettes he made as a teenager when it comes to his sonic canvas — in the sense that it sees him stripping everything down to just an acoustic guitar, harmonica, piano and his instantly recognizable yet a little more weary voice. He has reason for the added gruffness, as the album was partially inspired by a cyst that doctors found on his brain. These songs were recorded in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, in just forty-eight hours; however, unlike Bruce Springsteen’s similarly minimalist Nebraska, there’s nothing lo-fi about the actual recording quality of Ruminations. These sparse soundscapes give added weight to Oberst’s lyrics, which have never been more powerful than they are here.

For the duration of the frenzied performance, I was convinced that the world was ending.

The last time I saw Oberst perform live was when Desaparecidos played Webster Hall last year. Their guitarist, Denver, saw me standing outside the venue, confused and high on mushrooms, and ushered me in. For the duration of the frenzied performance, I was convinced that the world was ending. This wasn’t helped by the fact that the band had decided to air the first Republican debate live on giant televisions, causing my bloodshot eyes to jump between the band’s impassioned power chords and Donald Trump’s enormous fluorescent face, which seemed to be speaking directly to me.

“It’s a bad dream, I have it seven times a week,” Oberst sings on the album’s opener, “Tachycardia,” a medical term for a heart rate that exceeds the normal resting rate. The song ends with the dizzying image of electricity’s introduction at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 — which is a little paradoxical when you consider that the song could have been performed at that very event with its transistor-free arrangement.

Heart rates and World’s Fairs may not be common fodder for folk songs, but Ruminations is dripping with out-there references.

Heart rates and World’s Fairs may not be common fodder for folk songs, but Ruminations is dripping with out-there references. While listening to the second song, “Barbary Coast (Later),” I have to look up references to both Paul Gauguin (a French post-Impressionist painter) and John Muir (a Scottish-American preservationist). However, Oberst is able to incorporate these references into his writing in a way that’s far more poetic than it is pretentious. When Obest sings about how the modern world is a “stimulant, a pornography” on the aforementioned track, you can see that he’s conflicted about the way technology has shaped our culture. This idea is mirrored on the Desaparecidos song “Ralphy’s Cut,” in which he muses, “Follow my friends through the phone but it isn’t life.” Maybe he’s an old soul, or maybe the rest of us have just been fed a diet of superficiality for so long that we can’t tell the difference anymore.

The songs on Ruminations don’t have concrete beginnings or ends — one picks up as the one before it winds down. “Gossamer” (I didn’t know what this word meant either; apparently it’s a fine type of silk) sees Oberst exploring Freudian ideas of id and superego, while “A Little Bit Uncanny” tells the story of a beauty who “became a symbol for the pain she never knew” and references both Jane Fonda and Ronald Reagan. The latter track also features the album’s most heartbreaking moment when Oberst eulogizes Christopher Hitchens, Oliver Sacks, “poor” Robin Williams and Sylvia Plath. If Bright Eyes showcased Oberst’s naked emotional center, Ruminations illustrates what he’s learned and lost along the way.

One of the most impressive aspects of Ruminations is the way that Oberst can hold the listener’s attention with such a sparse sonic palette, which is a true testament to the strength of his songwriting. Such is the case on “You All Loved Him Once,” a borderline vindictive song inspired by Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ and John Lennon about a forsaken guru. It’s also likely a bit autobiographical. Whether it was Oberst’s intention or not, I heard it in the context of the false rape allegations leveled against him in 2013.

Alternately, one of the album’s most beautiful tracks, “Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch),” is inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s controversial lover and references Wright’s architectural feats. The song sees its author aspiring to create something that transcends music and become an enduring part of our cultural consciousness. “A rumination in my mind, winding like the ramp at the Guggenheim,” Oberst sings over a gentle finger-picked guitar. “I’m not content, but I’m feeling hesitant to build something that’s sacred ‘til the end.”

If we had the chance to do it all over again, would we play it safe or risk everything for love, the way Borthwick did?

A central theme of Ruminations is Oberst comparing his art to the legendary figures he’s referenced within these songs. He struggles with a sense of regret (with such lines as “It would take a time machine for me to fulfill all my fantasies”) that’s relatable for anyone looking back at their life, even if they were acclaimed from a young age. If we had the chance to do it all over again, would we play it safe or risk everything for love, the way Borthwick did? Or dedicate our lives to activism, like Muir? Despite the distractions of technology, these core emotions and questions about his own art are universal, and Oberst has an uncanny way of filtering them down into something that both sounds sweet and leaves a psychic sting.

“I’m just trying to be easy, agreeable,” Oberst sings on the deceptively dark “Counting Sheep” (the only song on the album to directly mention the cyst). Oberst may sing that “tomorrow is shining like a razor blade,” but he follows that up by saying, “but anything’s possible if you feel the same.” Sure, death is inevitable, but instead of looking at it like the culmination of life, he sees it as motivating force — even when he’s steeped in loneliness or self-doubt.

Growing up in public isn’t easy — and Oberst has had his share of adversity over the years — but he faces difficult questions with such grace on Ruminations that by the end of the album, it’s difficult to picture him any differently than he looks today: dignified yet still defiant, and writing some of the best songs of his career.

Jonah Bayer is the guitarist for the screamo act United Nations. He is also a writer, producer and podcaster with two decades of experience in the music industry. He has written for Rolling Stone, Travel + Leisure, and Stereogum and worked on podcasts for clients such as HBO Max, iHeartMedia & Sonos. He is currently an adjunct professor in the English & Communications department at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts as well as a graduate student in Antioch University’s Clinical Mental Health Counseling program.