Album of the Week for 1/12/2017 : "Ruminations" by Conor Oberst


"On a slow day,
the rain against the windowpane
of the cafe
She spills the coffee grounds
And the same thought
hits her like cinder block
Life's an odd job
that she don't got the nerve
to quit"
For a while, I have missed Conor Oberst's coffee shop waitress - not specifically or literally, of course - not even conciously. I can't put my finger on it, and it's probably not real, but I feel like Oberst's amazing songs and writing have been on the more grandiose side of the pendulum for the last decade. Less "what's the waitress thinking" and more "how world religions work." Rolling Stone called 2014's Upside Down Mountain "the most immediately charming album he has ever made." Charming? I don't really like or want Oberst or Bright Eyes or Desparicitos to be charming. Charming is for his Mystic Valley Band and the Monsters of Folk; I've always thought of Oberst's and Bright Eyes' work as being poetic and approachable - sometimes dark, sometimes light, always insigthful and thoughtful - but never "charming." Maybe it's Rolling Stone semantics. In the words of Indigo Montoya "I do not think it means what you think it means."
The way Oberst thinks about death and dying and everyone's inevitable fate - and what we do with our time on this planet - has always drawn me to his songwriting. My favorite sung Oberst lyric is, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way: from the song "Poison Oak" on Bright Eyes' 2005 I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning. 
And I'm glad you got away
But I'm still stuck out here
My clothes are soaking wet
From your brother's tears
And, oh, the way Oberst delivers that line. You can, just by hearing it, see his bottom lip quivering and his clenched fists. It's like rage. I'm Wide Awake... has its sadder songs, too, but the whole album is so hopeful - yes the plane is crashing into the sea and we are all going to die, but we can make the trip down a great, joyus party. And on the same album, the waitress is different than 2016; she's the one I miss:
I've got no plans and too much time
I feel too restless to unwind
I'm always lost in thought
as I walk a block
To my favorite neon sign
Where the waitress looks concerned
But she never says a word
Just turns the jukebox on
and we hum along
And I smile back at her
We're born, we party and love, we have hangovers and regret, and we die - hopefully during the former activities as opposed to the latter. The thread throughout much of Oberst's work - to me - is human beings being kind to one another - kindred spirits finding one another and enjoying their short time together.
In juxtoposition, we have October 2016's Ruminations, this weeks Album. It is dark. It is different. It is stark and lonely. It was recorded in 48 hours with just Oberst, in his home, on piano, acoustic guitar, and harmonica. He wrote it, reportedly, after he learned about a cyst growing on his brain.
And on this album, the waitress doesn't care about you - she's off thinking that she's not strong enough to kill herself as the lyrics at the start of this blog post tell us. And the only sign that I've heard so far in my few listens to the album that anyone cares about anyone else is the album's last track - one about waking up, heading straight to the bar, and drinking until getting kicked out by Saint Dymphna, presumably day after day - where the singer intones: 
Be careful with your headphones on
When you cross the FDR
Don't want to be a casualty
Before you make it to the bar
According to Wikipedia, St. Dymphna is the patron saint of the nervous, emotionally disturbed, mentally ill, and those who suffer neurological disorders. And this album is filled with nervous, emotially distrurbed lyrics and themes as others by Oberst have been; but the most stark, underlying idea I hear - and one that I'm hoping I'm wrong about - is hopelessness. The fourth track is "Counting Sheep," and it's lyrics follow. So, join me on Thursday for Ruminations. It will be raining.
Closing my eyes, counting sheep
Gun in my mouth, trying to sleep
Everything ends, everything has to
Get well balloon, going insane
Weight of the world, papier-mâché
Gone with the wind, out into nothing
I'm just trying to be easy, agreeable
I don't want to seem needy to anyone,
including you
<Garbled Name> drowned in a pool
<Garbled Name> got killed walking to school
Hope it was slow, hope it was painful
Life is a gas, what can you do?
Catheter piss, fed through a tube
A cyst in the brain, blood on the bamboo
Highway to hell's littered with signs
Everything last thing they advertise
I want to buy, I want to sell too
But I don't want to seem greedy, I'm generous
I'm just trying to be pleasing to everyone, including you
Tomorrow is shining like a razor blade
And anything's possible if you feel the same
Early to bed, early to rise
Acting my age, waiting to die
Insulin shots, alkaline produce
Temperature's cool, blood pressure's fine
One twenty-one over seventy-five
Scream if you want, no one can hear you
I just want to be easy, acceptable
I don't want to seem needy to anyone, especially you
Especially you
Especially you


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