What I am most afraid of is the Dylan and Nebraska-era Springsteen comparisons this album will get. Ruminations is a sonically stripped down tour de force with just a piano, an acoustic guitar, a harmonica, and Conor Oberst’s signature wavered vocals. Each song was recorded live with Oberst either playing the piano or playing the acoustic and embellishing with the harmonica. But, these songs aren’t ‘Lua’; these songs aren’t ‘Milk Thistle’; these songs aren’t anything he’s done previously. These songs, as a whole, are not Conor Oberst the mythic poet and musician, but Conor Oberst the person. His dark wit, subtle command of imagery, and most importantly, his unabashed emotions are all still present, but they come in a different light.

Like many before me, what drew me into Conor Oberst’s realm were the beautiful and often pained lyrics of his poetry. I, too, once blasted ‘Lover I Don’t Have To Love’ in my headphones while getting stoned before class in high school. But those pained lyrics of yore are now antiquated when it comes to the songs on Ruminations. These are not songs of young unrequited love, the depression of exiting those angsty teen years into the trials of early adulthood, or depressing takes on the current state of humanity. For the most part, these songs can be seen as that post-depression. There is pain; there is beauty; there is angst. But, on Ruminations, Oberst finds a way to maturely bring the struggle of the self and the Self to light.

Ruminations heralds this change with the opening track, ‘Tachycardia’. A piano chord is struck 5 times as if someone is knocking on the door not to be let in, but for the listener to come out and explore what is to come. The opening lyrics are, “It’s a mass grave/ A dollar-fifty resting place.” From there he describes a persistent nightmare of being nervous in a courtroom and then claiming the defendant is not him but he takes the fall. The first track again reveals the intimacy that Ruminations achieves through its up-close-and-personal recording. Between phrases, you can hear Oberst gulp and strain to take in air, something you would miss with a large studio production.

In my opinion, the best song on the album is ‘Gossamer Thin’, another piano track. The piano lines flow in style that is reminiscent of The People’s Key while his voice glides over it. The first two thirds of the song tell the story of a drug-using troubadour who has a harem of women (“bohemian, left of the dial”) who swoon around him at his every word. His wife, who struggles not to be numbed at this point, has her own affair. But, Oberst does not judge, because it’s what they have to do to feel love. What comes next is what shows the depths of Oberst’s literary prowess. He starts with a general story and slowly starts bringing the scope of view in until all we see is the internal struggle with Oberst himself as he tries to “recall what the therapist said.” This whole song is just a poetic triumph. What takes it to that next level is lines like, “Ego and id/ the essential self/ You are who you are/ and you are someone else…’Cause the mind and the brain/ aren’t quite the same/ but they both want out of this place.” This kind of introspection could not have been written without his previous work. But again, this isn’t about the self but the Self.

Like any Conor Oberst project, there are of course songs with political commentary. His sharp tongue and dark humor always paints a vivid picture. ‘A Little Uncanny’ brings up the work of Jane Fonda (and an unnamed woman like her) and Ronald Regan. With Regan, it comes as no surprise to the biting words Oberst uses about how he took advantage of the poor and got Oberst to “read those Russian authors through and through.” The part that is most surprising is the part about Jane Fonda and the woman like her. He ends their vignette with the phrase, “It’s a little uncanny/ What she managed to do/ Become a symbol for a pain she never knew.” Now, this can be taken in two ways: her empathy was so strong she managed to accurately represent the people she was fighting for; or, it’s a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that she missed the irony of her privileged life- I lean towards the latter. There’s also, ‘You All Loved Him Once’, which tells the story of someone who selflessly protected the people and was beloved, but the crowds eventually turned against him. The song is vague enough that it can represent any number of politicians and activists. I would even go as far to question if there’s a religious statement behind the song. Both of these tracks follow in the footsteps of past political-folk writers.

In all honesty, I could take pages to review and dissect each song on this album as separate pieces. What I love most about this album is that it is the first time that his lyrics have taken priority over the music. The melodies are wonderful and the arrangements are full despite the minimalist use of instruments. There are moments where you can imagine how the song would have turned out with a full ensemble. But these songs don’t require that. That harmonica is played more strikingly than any electric guitar riff in recent memory. These are not sketches of songs or acoustic versions of songs. These are full-fledged songs the way they are. And because of the nature of the compositions, the lyrics take more of a center stage. This is important given the subject matter of most of Ruminations.

This album shows the personal growth of Conor Oberst. That doesn’t mean that he has the answers; he makes it clear this set of songs is a search for those answers, or at least, attempting to better understand the question. This album is contemplative and, maybe more important than anything else, stirs you delve into your own mind and those demons we all have.