Conor Oberst: Sonically Predicting ‘Ruminations’ and a Foray into Greater Nebraska | Column

[Conor Oberst announced a brand new album, Ruminations, and booked a show in GRAND ISLAND all in one month. HN’s former managing editor Chance Solem-Pfeifer and its current editor Andrew Stellmon attempt to forecast the new album’s sonic makeup and make sense of the Greater Nebraska concert in the following Grantland-esque email chain.]

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Andrew Stellmon: Chance, I awoke from a bad dream, splashed some water on my face and not only did Conor Oberst announce a new solo album, Ruminations, for later this year, but he also booked a show in Grand Island. What are the odds?

To give this sucker some context: Ruminations will be the Omaha singer/songwriter’s seventh studio album (by Wikipedia’s count — third of this century by mine) and his sixth album of any kind in the last eight years (counting Desaparecidos’ 2015 LP Payola and the Mystic Valley Band record Outer South in 2009). According to the statement he released, it’s a product of late Omaha winter nights “playing piano and watching snow pile up outside the window.” The perfect setting for ruminating!

Looks like it was recorded at Omaha’s ARC Studios, and will drop Oct 14 on Nonesuch Records, which carried his preceding album Upside Down Mountain. That album, generally well-received, saw Oberst at perhaps his most mature, most introspective and most instrumentally ornate.

Let’s pass on the concert for the moment (plenty to get to there) and tackle the album. Knowing what we know about the last 12 years, what can we expect from Ruminations? Where’s the first place you look?

Chance Solem-Pfeifer: Stellmoney! Happy to offer my two cents to create some hot content where before there was none. And more importantly, happy to speculate about an album that sounds like it might slip underneath a lot of critical conversations. While a big deal for fans and, of course, people who make/made a living writing about Nebraska music, I’m not sure how vigorously word of a serendipitous and genuinely solo acoustic record will shake the music press. That’s not to take away from what Ruminations could be or where Oberst registers as a famous musician in 2016. Payola got pretty incredible press. It just seems like this album is going for unassuming.

“Sketch-like” and “sparse” say the press statement as well as Oberst stating he didn’t set out to create an album when he started gathering songs last winter. That all makes me think it’ll be one for the fans, well-earned considering its predecessors. Upside Down Mountain was a clarion for the post-Mystic Valley Band solo career. Payola carried with it some of the best production I’ve heard on a record in a couple years and the ultra-reliable hiatus backstory. Those records both invited a lot of touring and media weight and they could both carry it. Oberst has been so prolific — has so many songwriting hats or bins or vehicles, or pick your metaphor — that his discography has expanded to a place where a reprieve album feels entirely appropriate. I wonder if in 15 years, the super fans will be fighting in O’Rourke’s over the best Oberst deep cuts, saying, “Dawg, you’re not giving ‘Gossamer Thin’ its due!” Then the friend takes a beat … “I think your opinions are gossamer thin!”

In short, every great songwriter puts out an album that’s relatively tossed off, that’s an exercise in craft, that excites a fanbase that will always take more songs.

But there’s another bit of context here I think I’ve implied my way around, and so has the album statement. Not trying to be a weird biography-appealer here, but people will recall that Desaparecidos’ massive national roll-out for Payola was cut a full month short last year when Oberst was hospitalized for laryngitis, anxiety and exhaustion. And near-shrieking “Radicalized” for 100 nights seems like it could really tax a body. So this new album was written in a latent moment, a recovery period if that’s not too dramatic to say. Presumably, it was a quiet and dark time in a quiet and dark space in a quiet and dark part of the year in Omaha. So, Stellmon, how quiet and dark is this album going to be? I wanna talk some aesthetics maybe some sparser cut from the body of work that could direct us to how this album might sound.

Stellmon: I can also see melodramatic Super Fan 1 retorting “Well, you all loved him once!” before their friends abandon them for the NBA Finals or something.

That’s a really good point about recovery. You implied this, but the hospitalization was very much in the public spotlight, and forced at least one major festival appearance cancellation. If there could be any pressure to “bounce back” from that, a decidedly more understate approach seems to counter that. And (to hint at one of my catalogue picks), it seems a great opportunity for Oberst to wash those various songwriting slates clean and begin anew.

If you’re looking backwards for some aesthetic, you could begin right where solo Conor left off, with “Common Knowledge” being the most tame and top three most gut-wrenchingly sad on an album packed with later-career contemplation. But then there’s plenty of production on Upside Down Mountain for there to be anything sparse to point to (save this and “You Are Your Mother’s Child”). I think we’re looking a little further backward.

Starting chronologically (and as far back as it seems pertinent to go), “Lua” is about as sparse as it gets, just Oberst, his guitar and a sprawling night of reverie with foreseeable but unavoidable consequences. One has to guess he’s past this stage of his career, at least when it comes to subject matter. Much of Upside Down Mountain was contemplative and wisened, tackling more overarching mid-life insecurities about change, death and getting by. But it’s a blueprint for structure and tenderness that has appeared multiple times since.

The first song two songs that came to mind when after finishing your response were “Lenders In The Temple” and “White Shoes.” For the former, from the Mystic Valley band’s 2009 LP Outer South, I can’t help but think of the country connection to one of Oberst’s recent endeavors. As some may know, he and a huge cast of Omaha players rolled out Dolores Diaz & the Standby Club in early January. That band started to play together in late 2015, just a bunch of friends fiddling around with deep country cut. In time of (I hope it isn’t overstating to say) crisis, a retreat into your inner circle to perform with your wife and friends in your hometown seems just the right type of medicine.

“White Shoes” is more tame than any of the Loretta Lynn or Ricky Skaggs tunes they’ve unleashed, but it’s that dusty, smouldering mood coupled with vivid imagery that brings this one to the forefront.

I cannot tell you why “Lenders” surfaced for me faster than “Cape Canaveral.” Maybe the middle verse, in which the subject gives a cleansing monsoon of a confession. I’m not surmising that there’s anything to be revealed, but in Ruminations, both the process and the piece of art itself might wash the cars and everything. Plus, they are two of my personal favorites from his self-titled album (along with “I Don’t Wanna Die,” which is not at all sparse). But while the darkly nimble “Lenders” cuts sharply as its layers unfold, “Cape” seems more his most recent reflective speed.

In short, very dark and quiet, but not comically or distastefully or mind-numbingly so. To nod at the upper end of the intensity spectrum, “I Don’t Wanna Die” is mad fun with the piano. But it’s hard to imagine, even this early that type of track with the pensiveness the title Ruminations suggests.

I feel like I’ve just word-vomited us into some kind of parameters, but you tell me!

Chance: Right, and I don’t mean to let on there was some weird voyeuristic interest in the health aspect; just that if you’re looking for a narrative beat, recuperation is one of the most recent available. Re: Dolores Diaz, I think there’s a quite encouraging and casual creative mentality showing through there. That you can goof off a little, that you can jam and cover classic country tunes and trade solos and it’s not some black mark on the discography. Part of being prolific and arriving with an acoustic record out of nowhere is kind of admitting albums don’t need to be accompanied by banners that say “Attention! Here is the 5th studio album of original, serious music! Pay attention and keep track!” It’s more generous to fans (and I would assume to oneself) to let on that you’re a good enough songwriter that dabbling has value.

Speaking of!  For my forecast on the new album’s sonics, I’m going to invoke a deep cut from the One of My Kind album, which I’m not totally sure how to describe. It’s full of B-sides and a Paul Simon cover and a couple somber toss-offs. I’m looking to “Breezy,” a completely bare piano-voice lament (there’s some noise at the end). It’s not anything smart to say it’s intimate. But it enacts something for a listener psychologically when you’re that close in your stereo or headphones to someone’s words, fingers and vocal cords. I predicted “unassuming” for Ruminations earlier, but that set-up really does pull back the curtain on everything but melody and lyrical craft. So there is kind of an invitation or mandate to scrutinize there. If the only seat in the house is front row center, well I’m probably going to be paying close attention. So those people arguing at the bar will likely know pretty quickly if they think these songs are good. Because the songs are only the songs. (And probably some great, non-intrusive production from Ben Brodin.)

A lot’s been made in recent years on how the marksmanship of Oberst’s voice has gotten a lot better. He’s never going sing like Art Garfunkel and no one wants him to, but I think he’s so much more adept at carrying a melody these days, it makes those trademark moments of vocal wilting even better. You know what I’m talking about? When at the of a phrase, his voice just kind of dribbles down the arcs of the last few syllables? And then poetics of those syllables stand out all the more. I remember former HN staff writer Jacob Zlomke expressing specific love for the line “better watch your Snickers bar” on “You Are Your Mother’s Child.” That’s that phrase-closing technique and I imagine it’ll rule the new songs.

And I agree whole-heartedly with “pensive.” Ruminations sounds like a title from the late career of a jazzman. You thought I was gone, but I’ve been doing some thinking by candlelight.

Now you’ve got me thinking about a solo, Jerry Lee Lewis-style version of “I Don’t Wanna Die In The Hospital.” (Even though I’m pretty sure it’s Nate Walcott who plays piano on that song.)

Stellmon: That would be a stone largely yet unturned, at least!

I invoke “Hospital” only to note that, while it’s hard to imagine anything quite so spirited, the album won’t be without dynamics, even if subtle and lyrical. Admittedly, I hadn’t heard “Breezy” until 15 minutes ago, and I think you’re spot on. Part of my curiosity lies in whether or not it diverts from there and how much (which is why I think I ended up naming a handful of songs).

I think it’s also interesting you say “jazzman,” because to me that signifies a sense of confidence. The tool here isn’t a tenor saxophone but rather Oberst’s songwriting ability. But like you said, it’ll all be front and center, arguably as much so as in a full-fledged album parade a la Payola, but perhaps for a smaller, more devoted audience. Does that even make sense?

Let’s also address the other part of this barroom email thread (I’m actually in my office but hey, there’s a hypothetical to maintain). It’d be silly to say that the same group would be talking about Thursday’s Grand Island show like it was the lunar landing, but it’s the first time (to my knowledge) Oberst has performed in-state west of Lincoln (full-disclosue, HN is involved). Is it interesting enough to ask what you think it’ll be like? Does it say anything in particular or is it just pretty cool?

Chance: I think the Grand Island show is pretty cool indeed! Especially at this stage in Oberst’s career. As a native Omahan, I can speak to how little interest a lot of residents have in small towns. Without family ties, they often don’t have a reason to be interested. I’m generalizing a tad, but I also estimate that the more nationally a Nebraskan aims with any pursuit — if they move to New York at 25, for instance, and write a quintessential New York album — the more a place like central Nebraska is easily and permanently written off. The highest profile musicians touring Nebraska west of Lincoln are typically pop-country and fair circuit acts. That’s not an encouraging crop, artistically-speaking. As a former HN employee, I know full well the Good Living Tour exists specifically to counteract that state of things. Considering its second year just ended a week ago, I think you could look at this pretty high profile as a bonus offering. But it’s a slight reversal of GLT’s arrangements too. It’ll almost certain bring Omahans and Lincolnites to Grand Island.

I know Oberst was headed to Rocky Mountain Folk Fest anyway, but here’s an artist who’s shown you can come from Nebraska, aim really high, move elsewhere, come back and still have curiosity about your home state. In this case, I think you have to see curiosity as doubling for hope. Considering the show is free too, it’s a meaningful gesture.

Are you going? Will you let me know if they work any full band arrangements of new Ruminations tunes?

Stellmon: Well said! I will be there, and I’m really hoping to find the people that have shown up there just because there’s something going on. I don’t mean to downplay excitement from longtime fans, but the general enthusiasm for concerts like that is more beneficial long-term, and lays the groundwork for that kind of thing to continue happening. That’s all I could think about during the Good Living Tour; while some in the crew were excited night to night about the acts that were playing, there were certainly members of the audience that had no idea who Josh Hoyer or See Through Dresses or The Good Life were. They showed up because there was an event. Not to toot HN’s horn, but Hear Grand Island attracts 1,000 every Friday and is promoted and orchestrated (at least in part) by the same GI Company that’s on the Oberst show. So in addition to being cool of the artist to do, any show like this is another step towards normalizing quality original music.

And yeah, if we get some Ruminations you’ll be the first to get noisy phone audio. Having never seen him solo before, I’ve also got a little wish-list going. “Hospital” is on it.

Chance: I’m only sad that “normalizing quality original music” would look so bad on a poster.

Well, pal! Thanks for including me in this. And thanks to Grantland and all the email hacks of the last five years for cementing this as a readable form of published communication. There are hundreds of ways to get through the day; I dare say this is one. Talk to you when we likely do an On The Record podcast on Ruminations. It’ll be fun to see if we can do it without tearing up.

Stellmon: I’m not optimistic. Thanks for playing along! And thanks, what’s left of you readers!

Conor Oberst plays in front of Prairie Pride Brewing Co., 309 N Pine, Thursday, Aug 18 with McCarthy Trenching, Miwi La Lupa and Phil Schaffart. Doors are at 6:30 p.m., concert at 7:30 p.m. RSVP here.