Ideally, we save second chances for those who fail their first try. In Salutations, Conor Oberst convinces us otherwise. Last October, Oberst presented us with Ruminations, a 10-piece album he recorded mostly by himself. Ruminations was praised for its warm, intimate sound—something most considered was achieved by the fact Oberst was playing on his own. That’s why when Oberst announced he actually intended to play those songs with a full band, most of us could think but one thing: we don’t need this.
Even if Salutations is an unnecessary record, but it does not fall short of incredible. In Salutations, Oberst delivers his usual uncanny sound, transformed by the collaborations of The Felice Brothers and drummer Jim Keitner, who joined him in Malibu to add some flesh to the bony demos. The album was co-produced by Oberst and Keltner, and engineered by Andy LeMaster, who worked with most of Bright Eyes and Oberst’s music.
Salutations is a depart from the singer-songwriter’s previous work, in some sense. Oberst’s later solo work, One of My Kind and Upside Down Mountain, was often defined by a more produced, heavy sound, with contrasted with that of his former band, Bright Eyes. Salutations is a closer call to that band—slow, content-yet-melancholic songs, but with an instrumentation that is slightly characteristic to the album.
When Oberst returns to his earlier songs, he puts them in their true light. For example, “Gossamer Thin”, the second track in Salutations (but the third one in Ruminations—reminding us that it’s not a simple rework) frames what was a sad ballad about a dying relationship in a more sincere, frank tone. “Rain Follows the Plow,” a revisit of “The Rain Follows the Plow,” and “Counting Sheep” are good uses of the shift from acoustics that convince us that’s how the songs were always meant to sound. “Tachycardia” is probably the most solid example of this—what was a depressing opener that consisted in an awkward ensemble of Oberst’s vocals, piano and harmonica, is now an open-hearted that conveys better the emotional demolition Oberst intended, and gives the song a hint of hope.
The new additions are also solid numbers. “Too Late to Fixate”, the opener Salutations, is a pragmatic number that sounds too much like usual Oberst—for better or for worse. Interestingly, it acts as a good introduction to the record, and marks the optimism that differentiates it from Ruminations.
“Overdue” features the whole band in its full splendor, and because of its excellent songwriting—in all Oberstian fashion—soft-core anxiety, gloomy yet happy—listeners could be easily convinced it was a left-out from the earlier record.
“Afterthought” is also a beautifully written song about not being enough for someone you love. The kind of simple lyrics he employs bring an unchallenging, but sentimentally sound song to life.
“Napalm” is an unusual, more funky number, a clear exception in the record, that is still an interesting inclusion in the larger structural movements of the album.
“Empty Hotel by The Sea” uses subtle instrumentation that acts coherent to the album, while “Anytime Soon” reminds us to be thankful that we have electric guitars and percussion as the jamming becomes intense and emotionally charged.
The album closes with “Salutations,” a piano-driven ballad, which is also the darkest song in the album and a relatively weak number—arguably, a bad call. The sound of the song is too jarring in relation to the rest of the album and its use of piano fails to muster up anything other than sappy emotional sentiments.
Salutations is a strong and touching record, a shrug against a world colliding in one’s face. It revisits Ruminations giving it its necessary touch of optimism and hope, remembering us that not all is lost—but things are really bad, anyway. By exploring his own work, Oberst takes his songs to the place they always deserved.
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