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Last year’s Ruminations was like no Conor Oberst album before it, and hopefully, none to come. Performed entirely solo, released with little fanfare and bearing a distressing, cabin-fever ambience, it offered the first and final word on a once-unspeakably rough time in his life. Ruminations was Oberst’s strongest record in years, but no one would want him to make it a second time. Less than six months later, Salutations is an even more curious move. Oberst re-recorded all 10 songs with a full band and a host of guests, added seven new ones and hit shuffle—a decision that drags Salutations down and bring its predecessor along with it.
After a series of lesser-loved guises—inscrutable mystic, folk-rock yeoman—Oberst has found a more interesting and sustainable point of view. A kind way of putting it would be “world-weary raconteur.” Perhaps a more accurate way would be “kind of an asshole.” The prospect of hearing another dude do this for about 70 minutes is a hard sell at a time when Father John Misty, Drake, Mark Kozelek, and Future have released approximately 9 hours of music in the past year that wearily postulates from a position of privilege on their dissatisfaction with sex, drugs, and everyone outside of their immediate circle. The difference here is that Oberst only hops on a pedestal for the purpose of knocking himself down.
In his post-poster boy phase, Oberst is no longer trapped by expectation or myth; he can play his past personas against each other. “Afterthought” and “Overdue” respectively caricature the roles he played on his 2005 diptych of protest song and smack-addled narcolepsy, presenting the narrator as someone for whom extreme politics and heroin are just another fix. On the opener “Too Late to Fixate,” he half-asses his way through transcendental meditation only to find serenity in the luxuries of a hotel feather bed and a mistress to lay upon it: “You know I don’t mind the money/It beats betting on sports/And though it might get expensive/It’s cheaper than divorce.”
These aren’t new topics for Oberst, but he’s never been this flat-out funny, providing a necessarily salty and bitter edge as he reverts back to the tasteful roots rock that has defined his past decade. This approach reflects of Oberst’s status as a Nonesuch recording artist who hangs out with the Felice Brothers and Dawes, but it also shows the dividing line between “crowd pleaser” and “cult builder.” Though Ruminations was the inverse of the fire-breathing agitpop of his band Desaparecidos’ 2015 LP Payola, both serve as proof of the extreme measures necessary to steer Oberst away from the middle of the road—where Salutations spends well over an hour.
The most rewarding records of this length carry a mutual assumption of risk. Listeners will indulge the occasional faceplant as long as the artist is making an attempt to reach new personal heights. Though Salutations is one of Oberst’s most demanding albums, it’s also one of his least ambitious, even before taking these new arrangements into account. The righteous indignation of “You All Loved Him Once” was devastating when it was Oberst alone; recast now as “Oberst and the Felice Brothers against the world,” it’s less believable. “Counting Sheep” dulls its edge in the most literal way imaginable: On Ruminations, Oberst mused on the death of two local youths, hoping it was both slow and painful while censoring out their names. He actually reveals them here, but changes the lyric to “Hope it was quick, hope it was peaceful.”
Even if Ruminations is now rendered a collection of demos, it was unquestionably an album—thematically and sonically coherent and perfectly sequenced. Salutations muddles that. On Ruminations, “You All Loved Him Once” was the penultimate track, settling scores. And it led into “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out,” which implored those who stuck around to forget old memories and make new ones. The latter is now stuck right in the middle of Salutations and this diminishes the song’s effect. (Just imagine if Oberst had lost his nerve in 2005 and recorded the caustic electro-pop of Digital Ash as folk songs and slapped them onto I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning.) From a songwriting standpoint, Salutations is an undeniable triumph—for people who haven’t heard Ruminations yet. If they exist, I envy them.Share