Salutations is a surprise. After Ruminations (the 10-track album written and recorded by Conor Oberst in the cold confines of Omaha, Nebraska) came out last year, the news that a second album, with full-band arrangements of those same 10 songs plus seven more, would be released this year was an unexpected bonus. Featuring the contributions of The Felice Brothers and Jim Keltner, it promised a new treatment of some of Oberst’s most raw compositions. The result is a fulsome new release, markedly different from its 2016 cousin.
If nothing else, Salutations is a fascinating look at the changes that come from collaboration and evolution in a studio setting versus the isolation in which these songs were born. Instead of relying solely on piano, acoustic guitar, and harmonica, Oberst and company employ accordions, organs, strings (of both the orchestral and fiddle varieties), and ethereal sound collage elements to build up these tracks and give them a unique character.
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In place of sparse confessionals, Oberst offers amblers, anthems, and torch songs. The first track of the album, “Too Late to Fixate”, announces Salutations as such – a slow groove with his trademark combination of wry humor, self-pity, and world-weary reflection. The album’s new additions tend to be its more raucous ones, approaching a Southern rock vibe in songs like “Napalm” and “Anytime Soon”. Despite those rollicking numbers, much of Salutations moves at a slower pace, with the addition of percussion and string-accompaniment often turning Oberst into a crooner (see: “Rain Follows the Plough”). The record has an overall jam band quality, but it’s one to sway and swoon to, with clean electric guitars and steady ballads.
The themes are recognizable to anyone familiar with Oberst’s prior work. There is a particular focus on the peculiar nature of celebrity, most notably “It’s a Little Uncanny” and “You Loved Him Once”. Oberst seems captivated by how people in the public eye have a strange hold over the rest of us in ways that can affect the lives of both those adoring and adored.
The album also presents Oberst struggling with his own mortality. Health issues, including a diagnosis of a cyst in his brain, originally prompted the singer to step back from a planned tour and pour his worries onto the page. The echoes of that remain on Salutations in songs like “Tachycardia” and “Counting Sheep” with lyrics like “everything ends, everything has to.” Oberst seems to be contemplating his own end, trying to reassure himself about both the meaning and inevitability of it.
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Through the fuller production, however, Oberst softens the blow of these thoughts. There was a bare earnestness to Salutations’ predecessor, a sense in which Oberst was sequestered in his own confessional in Nebraska, pleading his case and wrestling with his demons. In the confines of the studio, the lyrics have the same potency, but Oberst himself is more languid, the instrumentation more amiable than arresting. It turns passages in songs like “A Little Uncanny”, where Oberst sings “I miss poor Robin Williams”, from sad laments into fond remembrances. That’s not bad — just different — something important for two albums that share half a set list.
But the same ruminative qualities remain on the record. Salutations focuses on the fleeting, fickle nature of just about everything. Success, romance, veneration, discipline, fidelity, and life itself all appear to be phantoms that can never truly be captured or pinned down in Oberst’s estimation (see: “Gossamer Thin”, “Salutation”, “Afterthought”). Oberst is seemingly beleaguered by this uncertainty and the march of years, with many songs that mention his finding refuge in various substances, geographic escapes, or more carnal distractions.
But at base, Oberst strikes the notes of a man trying to find something permanent, beautiful, and unblemished within that tumult. In “Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)”, he speaks of finding something “sacred till the end,” after beauty, wealth, and achievement have faded and crumbled. He seems to settle on art as one of those few things that can be pure, that can withstand the panicked paradoxes of the day-to-day and perhaps even death itself. While gentler than its predecessor, Salutations is his bulwark against the tide, a warm record that offers calm in the cacophony, comfort in the struggle, the darkness amid the hope and the hope amid the darkness.
Essential Tracks: “Too Late to Fixate”, “Napalm”, and “Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)”