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Conor Oberst Deals With His Devils

On his excellent, extremely sad new album, ‘Ruminations’

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Getty Images

The setting was both intimate and not: a cozy Manhattan bookstore cramped with cameras that would be broadcasting Conor Oberst’s performance out to thousands of viewers on the internet. It was a Friday night, and the 36-year-old singer-songwriter was there to play the entirety of his new album, Ruminations. People stood against the stacks, but I managed to find one of the last empty chairs, on an aisle. The woman sitting next to me gave me a neighborly smile. “Can’t wait!” she said. “I hear his stage banter is really funny.”

I stared at her blankly, wondering if I’d wandered into the wrong bookstore-slash-concert-venue. We couldn’t possibly be talking about … the Bright Eyes guy? I looked around the room and was reassured by a giant poster of the album cover: Oberst turned from the camera, hunched over an old piano, harmonica holder orbiting his mouth like awkward adolescent orthodontia. I figured that this woman just hadn’t heard the new album yet. Or … any of the old albums. Or the false rape allegations or the news of a brain cyst. I returned my neighbor’s smile. “Let’s hope!” I said.

The 10 songs that would become Ruminations poured out of Oberst in about 48 hours, while he was at home and snowed in last winter in Omaha. A far cry from his more ornately orchestrated folk, Ruminations is desolate, strange, shudderingly bare: just a haunted piano, a furiously strummed guitar, and a wheezing harmonica. Some of the songs sound like “Piano Man” might if the Piano Man had woken up that morning on the wrong side of the bed, and come nighttime, instead of regaling the bar with a gently melancholy ditty about Paul the Real Estate Novelist, he just started making up a free-form song as he went about how everyone in the audience is going to die someday, and how all of their children were also going to die someday, and that some of these deaths might be painful and slow. “They say a party can kill you,” goes a representative lyric on Ruminations. “Sometimes I wish it would.”

Ruminations is the best album Conor Oberst has made in more than a decade, although I feel a little bit guilty saying that, because it is also the saddest album he has made in over a decade, alive and crackling with a sincere, thorny pain. I’ll admit his last few records — more upbeat, more pristine — all kind of passed me by with no real impact. So the departure of Ruminations poses an interesting, if uncomfortable, question to the listener: Does Oberst have to be miserable to make good music?

There are, I think, two kinds of Conor Oberst fans: First, there are those who will know him from 2005’s commercial breakthrough I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, and who think of him as a clever, solid craftsman of NPR-approved folk rock. (Indeed, Friday night’s Ruminations concert was streamed live on NPR’s Facebook page.) Then there are those who used Oberst’s feral wails to both validate and soothe our teenage depressions, who made digital shrines to him on our LiveJournals, and who may or may not have recently unearthed a really embarrassing diary entry in which we called I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning “music for yuppies.” Ruminations is an album for the people in that second group.

Which is to say: me. For a time in my mid-to-late adolescence, Bright Eyes was not just a band I liked, but a lifestyle — a suggested reading list, a secret language shared among friends, and also a pretty, poetic vocabulary to describe the particulars of my teen angst. Then and now, my favorite Bright Eyes album was Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, a sprawling, eclectic epic Oberst released when he was just 22. It came at a bit of a junction in his career (and my sophomore year of high school), and it’s the best of both worlds: a perfect balance of his ambitiously arranged chamber pop — the result of a fruitful, longtime collaboration with the imaginative producer Mike Mogis — and lo-fi, guitar-and-voice nods to his days of recording urgent demos in his bedroom.

What attracted me to his voice was what repelled plenty of others from it: the way it broke. Oberst has always had a great ear for melody, which in the early days meant he could turn his voice into this grotesque yelp and his songs would be enlivened by this tension between beauty and ugliness rubbing up against each other. He does some of his most gloriously monstrous singing on “The Big Picture,” the eight-minute ballad that opens Lifted and builds towards an ecstatic conclusion: “So you can struggle in the water, be too stubborn to die / Or you can just let go and be lifted to the skyyyyyyy-yyyyyy-yyyy.” My parents and my teachers hated the ways his voice sounded, and so it was an electric guitar to me. Punk as fuck.

One of the complicated truths of being a music fan is that you hold the artists who spoke to you in your lowest moments to the highest standards. It’s a strange relationship, and not always reciprocal. Oberst got a little happier, and so did I. The records he’s made over the past decade have forced me to admit that I did not like or need his music as much when we were both feeling good: That desire for a musician to keep upping the ante of darkness can be insatiable, and perhaps unfair. Maybe it’s just proof that I’m fully into my yuppie phase now, but I appreciate I’m Wide Awake way more now, and find it to be a much darker album than I initially thought. It’s also the record on which he really started grappling with the burdens of his own celebrity. “I’m making a deal with the devils of fame,” he sings in one of the album’s most candid lines, “saying let me walk away, please.”

In December 2013, a user on the website xoJane who called herself Joanie Faircloth wrote a series of lengthy comments alleging that in 2003, when she was 16, Oberst raped her after a concert. Oberst filed a libel lawsuit, and the following July the woman recanted: “The statements I made and repeated online and elsewhere over the past six months accusing Conor Oberst of raping me are 100 percent false. I made up those lies about him to get attention while I was going through a difficult period in my life.”

These are not the kinds of sexual assault stories we like to get attention, the ones that traffic in harmful and one-dimensional stereotypes: Powerful man insisting his innocence turns out to be right; alleged rape victim turns out to be lying. Before his accuser recanted, a domestic violence advocacy group publicly asked Oberst to withdraw the lawsuit. “Even if Ms. Faircloth was not truthful, vilifying discussion of sexual assault by filing such a lawsuit only adds to the problem of under-reporting that enables sexual assault to proliferate at alarming rates,” the group said at the time.

“I’m sure it’s not on the same level [being a woman in the music business],” Oberst said in a recent New York Magazine profile, “but I can relate to being objectified. To being treated like, if you’re not what I want you to be … then you’re shit.” The article was mostly about how he’d finally cleared his name, and yet the article’s SEO headline was still “Conor Oberst on Rape Allegations and New Album.” In that order. I felt sorry for Oberst, but also I did not want to “defend” him, because in these days of the kneejerk internet response, to defend someone is too often seen as attacking the person on the other side.

To compound things, last October, while he was on tour with one of his side projects, Desaparecidos, Oberst became ill, and after extensive tests doctors found a cyst in his brain. Which is perhaps a lot scarier than it sounds; he’s said he’s totally fine and taking medication that keeps everything under control. Still, these two events set the mood for the somber tone of the new album. He’s more forthcoming in writing about his health issues (especially on “Counting Sheep,” a haunting hospital-bed dirge that feels like Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips” set to folk music) than he is the more taboo subject of the allegations. But sometimes if you squint they’re there: “It’s a little uncanny, what they managed to do,” he sings, “made me admit to things I knew were never true.”

“Are you allowed to have dead air on the internet?” Oberst asked between songs on Friday night, as he transitioned from piano to guitar. I laughed along with my neighbor — it wasn’t even that funny of a joke, but anything was welcome comic relief. These songs are certainly raw on record, but there was something particularly arresting about seeing them live, to hear a real-live person singing lyrics that often feel too private to share with close friends, let alone the Friday night visitors to NPR’s Facebook page. Who knew who was listening, what they were doing, how the words were landing — you never can know any of those things when you’re laying the uglier parts of your soul that bare. They say Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil to sing the blues, but I think everyone who sings about their sadness does, even if they don’t realize it until later. And that’s the uneasy trade-off Oberst made years ago, when he first started plumbing the depths of teenage despair: His music was always going to sound the best when he’s at his lowest.