“I miss Christopher Hitchens
I miss Oliver Sacks
I miss poor Robin Williams
I miss Sylvia Plath”
Can we get a sense of what Conor Oberst, erstwhile Bright Eyes frontman, former sad-rock poster boy, and current limelight-allergic 30-something, is ‘about,’ in 2016, from the figures he cites in these lines off “A Little Uncanny,” from his new album Ruminations? Hitchens’ militant atheism is an obvious jumping-off point. One recalls a line from “Waste of Paint,” from 2002’s Lifted…, about an “absent God,” evidently still in absentia. The Sacks reference is a little more esoteric; perhaps his yoking of music theory and neuroscience forms a nice counterpoint to Hitchens’ godless bitterness — a kind of optimistic turn of the secular screw. (Sacks himself was also an avowed atheist.) Williams, god rest his soul, was funnier than Oberst but only by a hair. Only someone with a healthy comic sensibility could have named his 10-minute-plus magnum opus “Let’s Not
Shit Ourselves (To Love And Be Loved).” But the Plath reference is at once the most obvious and the most interesting. The three men that precede her in Oberst’s elegiac verses all died within the past half-decade — Hitchens in 2011, Sacks in 2015, Williams in 2014. Plath, though, turned the oven on in 1963, and in so doing hammered the canonizing nail into Confessional Poetry’s cross.
Oberst is indisputably a descendant of Plath. That the same hair-dyed androgynes who scribbled lines from “Lady Lazarus” in the margins of their high school notebooks were listening to Bright Eyes’ Fevers and Mirrors throughout most of the ‘00s should come as no surprise. Plath’s specter, towing her thinly veiled erotic view of death, suffuses Oberst’s earlier music, from the sad-eyed juvenilia of “Lila” through the mordantly morbid “The Calendar Hung Itself” and beyond. But Plath died at 30, and Oberst is now 34. He is, by all accounts, happily married as of 2011. His last album, 2014’s Upside-Down Mountain, was a pleasantly boring fifty-five minutes of seeming marital bliss, or at least the closest approximation that the one-time singer of “Lover I Don’t Have To Love” could muster. If Upside-Down Mountain heralded the arrival of a newly grown-up Oberst, Ruminations demonstrates the effects of this maturation. His voice, a distinctive and much-imitated tool, remains the boyish warble of the Bright Eyes years, but its target is no longer the singer himself.
Rather, Ruminations branches outward lyrically — spinning gyre-like around a solemn center of sparse, acoustic instrumentation. Freed from the self-centered angst of his younger years, Oberst conjures a world of dreamers, lovers, burnouts, and drinkers who are of part of the grim ethos of his youthful work but distinctly other. “Tachycardia,” for instance, tells the story of a man afflicted with the eponymous condition who drinks to slow his hyperactive heart, but the escapist allure of the “dark bar” that he frequents soon becomes its primary draw, a second-order appeal that subsumes the seeming utility of his drinking. In the next verse, Oberst connects this idea of temporary escapism to another character, a barista who comes to “the same thought” in a moment of work-related frustration. “Life’s an odd job that she don’t have the nerve to quit,” he sings.
Here, as never before, Oberst’s primary role is observational, even verging on the voyeuristic. At one point in the highlight “Gossamer Thin,” he spies an unfaithful couple of addicts through a motel window. “It’s no business of mine,” he sings, “if they can love more than one at a time. For his speaker, the ability to sympathize — or at least identify — with such morally ambiguous figures comes from a recognition of his own beaten-down state. He, too, has been “worn gossamer thin” by the pressures of life, the addictive impulse that drives both their infidelity and his alcoholism. (“The drink in my hand is starting to shake,” he admits.) No longer the prototypical Plathian confessee, Oberst becomes more like a Catholic confessor, taking in the sins of his subjects and offering, through lyrical mediation, not absolution but something close: an understanding that yokes each diegetic fuckup together in shared humanity.
Maybe this is where all that atheistic baggage comes in. Years removed from trying to figure out his own relationship with religion, Oberst appears to have adopted a more selfless artistic mission: songwriting as a corrective against loneliness, a reminder that there is a world beyond the individual and that it’s populated with humans who feel, often, the same sense of isolation and who (ironically!) use the same counter-intuitive tactics to escape it — that we, like the pair in “Tachycardia,” are united by our occasional despairing ruminations.
This comes to a head in “Til Saint Dymphna Kicks Us Out,” a lovely, Randy Newman-esque closer in which Oberst conjures a bar — St. Dymphna’s — where “You don’t have to lie, say you’re alright,” and where the patrons, among which Oberst’s speaker includes himself, are “just happy you’re here.” The bar is real — it’s an Irish Pub on St. Mark’s Place in New York — but for Oberst the choice of name is hardly arbitrary: Saint Dymphna is, for Catholics, the Patron Saint of mental illness and spiritual afflictions, a revelation sure to get a rise out of longtime Bright Eyes devotees.
“Some things go south and they never turn around,” Oberst sings towards the end of “Saint Dymphna,” “But if you want a confidant, I’d never let you down.” Oberst was once a mirror, a projection onto which those Plath-scribbling junior-depressives could map their own probably-not-all-that-significant anxieties and pains. Now he’s a “confidant,” a listener. But for an album that seems to find its only solace in the communal nature of human suffering, Ruminations is an awfully solipsistic musical affair. Bright Eyes albums, for all their lyrical insularity, always sounded like the work of a team; at times, even, as on the swelling “False Advertising,” the work of an orchestra. Ruminations, by contrast, is guttingly spare. All the songs are either piano- or acoustic guitar-based, but never at the same time. There’s a harmonica, but only when Oberst isn’t singing. Longtime collaborator Mike Mogis assists with production, but his trademark pedal-steal guitar is unfortunately absent from the record. When Oberst played at College Street Music Hall this summer with the Felice Brothers as his backing band, the then-unreleased Ruminations material swaggered with the folk-rock heft we’ve come to expect from Oberst in his looser moments. It’s hard not to miss that sound, especially on “A Little Uncanny,” which all but yearns for harmonic vocals, drums, and blues rock guitar licks. Moreover, it’s a little easier to believe in the powers of community when there’s, you know, a discernible group of people avowing said powers.
Then again, though, confession is a two-person thing. Just you and your confidant, sitting in solemnity, listening through the screen.