There’s a certain tradition amongst folksy, indie-rock singer-songwriters of hiding away and churning out a deeply personal album during a difficult time. The most famous of these is likely Springsteen’s Nebraska, but a more modern example is Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. After a gruelling ordeal involving being falsely accused of sexual assault in 2013, Oberst retreated to Omaha and recorded Ruminations in 48 hours, and in doing so, has made his most vital work in years.
The key difference between Ruminations and its aforementioned forebears, is that of tone. All three albums are ceaselessly negative, but instead of being sorrowful like Nebraska and For Emma, Forever Ago, Ruminations sounds anxious, and manic. Those albums were all played gently, using the delicate twang of guitars reverberating through spaces to create a lonely ambience, but Ruminations sounds more like a freak-out. The guitars and pianos are played forcefully, and Oberst’s harmonica solos constantly sound like they’re about to fall apart. It lacks the nuance and creativity of the other records, but it matches the lyrical themes, which are far more about feeling like you’re falling apart, instead of it having already happened.
On Ruminations, Oberst doesn’t just vaguely gesture at what’s troubling him, or the effect it’s having on him. Instead, he indulges his taste for minutia and intimate details, from the frequent mentions of his medical conditions (the first track is titled Tachycardia, and Counting Sheep mentions a brain cyst), to his notably listing celebrities who’ve died by suicide when naming people he misses. Th effect is strikingly visceral, and the album’s strongest moments come when Oberst focuses inward. However, much of it is also made up of interesting non-sequiturs (there’s a whole verse about Ronald Reagan which sounds like Killer Mike could have written it), which whilst entertaining, give the album a more disorganised feel. It’s evident from the lyrical content that Ruminations was written in a haze of sadness and alcohol, but the structure reflects it too.
Ruminations is an extremely personal album, often to a fault. It’s energetic and intense, but also a bit messy. It never quite coheres, but maybe that’s the point; Oberst has been through something that defies resolution, and he’s unlikely to recover anytime soon. Ruminations isn’t about him exorcising his demons, because it seemingly can’t be done. Instead, it’s a look inside a broken man, and it’s as heartbreaking as it is maddening.