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Bright Eyes front man Conor Oberst retreated to his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska last winter. From that, Ruminations was derived. Unexpected and unplanned, the Omaha snowfalls gave birth to Oberst’s fourth solo album. Ruminations finds Oberst’s distinct, quivering voice supplemented by only three instruments throughout all ten songs: guitar, harmonica and piano. No song has more than two of them to accompany his vocals. The Nebraska native’s winter isolation bred an album teeming with lyrical poetry, and a beauty in its bereft spirit.
“Tachycardia” leads Ruminations, bouncing with a piano line reminiscent of Regina Spektor. Musically, it’s not unlike others on the record; it’s Conor Oberst plus a harmonica and a piano. But, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. “Barbary Coast (Later)” substitutes the piano for an acoustic guitar. “I might have a taste cause the first one’s free, and the check out girl’s got a thing for me,” says the songwriter. His vulnerable approach to lyricism has been a cornerstone of his since his 1993 debut. Two decades later, he hasn’t lost sight of that. That patented methodology merges with his piano and harmonica on “Gossamer Thin.”
“Counting Sheep” includes a stripped-down guitar progression during the verses. It’s a pleasure to listen to while he sings, “Life is a gas, what can you do? Catheter piss fed through a tube, cyst in the brain, blood on the bamboo.” Oberst breaks from his apparent formula for an edgier sound on, “A Little Uncanny,” at least in the beginning. It provides a refreshing change of speed. It’s subtle, but enough to vary the sound to a point of diversity. Ruminations’s final track, “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out,” provides the album its closure.
There’s continuity in Oberst’s music that should be recognized. His songwriting and his sometimes simplistic approach to composition has been a lasting talent for years. Ruminations sees Oberst at his most bare moments. The same solitude that nurtured the album is present in each song. Ruminations hits its stride on the first key and never loses a step.