Bob Dylan has carved out a career path like no other 1960s rock star — he is one of the most enigmatic stars in the world. And now he can be called a Nobel Prize winner. Dylan was awarded the prize for literature; his massive songbook and memoir a worthy choice. I doubt Dylan cares much about the honor, but there is probably nobody in music who deserves it more than him.
One of the many artists who was once deemed a “new Dylan,” Conor Oberst, released a new album last week after a period of public controversy and personal struggle — it’s one of his rawest records yet.
“Ruminations” Conor Oberst
For a while, it took a certain amount of pain to take pleasure in Conor Oberst’s music.
His breakthrough came with the band Bright Eyes in the early 2000s, when his folkie-emo sound was more aggressively sad than contemporaries like Dashboard Confessional, and best listened to at 14 years-old after after a romantic disaster. But Oberst became known for his lyrics, and as he outgrew the teenage angst of “A Perfect Sonnet” and “The Calendar Hung Itself,” he became something of a poet laureate for indie kids in the middle of the 2000s.
So even as he started releasing more country-fried music under his own name and the kids who listened to Bright Eyes grew up, there was some relief that the outlooks both Oberst and his listeners’ outlook on life were improving. Nobody wants to relate to Bright Eyes’ dark music, not for more than the dark years of adolescence.
This is why his sixth album, “Ruminations,” is a little jarring in its directness. Oberst has been releasing music since he was 13, and he sounds every bit his age at 36. He had to be around for a while to reach midlife-crisis territory, and it comes after a few years of artistic stasis and personal turmoil.
It would be easy to view this record with the context of the sexual assault accusations that came against Oberst in 2014, allegations which were ultimately admitted to have been fabricated. The album could be seen as a response to the personal upheaval that resulted.
“Ruminations” features stripped down acoustic guitars, pianos and harmonicas. Oberst sings in a quivering voice, and he sounds very down. “I don’t wanna get stuck, baby/ I just wanna get drunk before noon,” he sings on “Barbary Coast (Later).” On “Counting Sheep,” he sings, “Tomorrow is shining like a razor blade.”
But to me, it seems like the meditations of a former wonderkid, who, like non-wonderkids, has found the transition into adulthood to not be without its bumps in the road. It’s sad, and like all of Oberst’s work, it feels like a diary entry, although this seems like one we shouldn’t be reading.
“Lyk Dis” NxWorries
In Knxwledge and Anderson .Paak’s joint project, NxWorries, the duo wonderfully blends their styles. Knxwledge produces jittery, hypnotic hip-hop instrumentals, and .Paak put out the smooth, made-for-the-beach “Malibu,” one of the year’s most star-making releases.
In “Lyk Dis” Paak’s rhymes adding some order to Knxwledge’s chaotic instrumentals.
The new album and first full-length effort, “Yes Lawd!,” is now streaming. The lead single, “Lyk Dis,” has been out for a few weeks. Wobbling strings and a vocal sample lay down the song’s backbone, with .Paak’s easy voice gliding over everything. It’s casual, but never crosses into a catatonic or laid-back state, with the drums knocking in the background.
Knxwledge is an underground production king at this point, and his forays into the mainstream with Kendrick Lamar, and now .Paak, might just be enough to make him break through. And while the two may have summer year-round in their Southern California home bases, this record will make a Midwest winter a little more bearable.