Listening to Conor Oberst’s new album Salutations is like visiting an old friend that you know you used to love but fear you don’t have so much in common with anymore. Oberst was a prolific force in the 2000s releasing nine albums under his most recognisable moniker Bright Eyes, along with numerous other collaborations such as the Mystic Valley Band, Desaparacidos and the Monsters of Folk.
Since the last Bright Eyes album The People’s Key came out in 2011 he has seemed to have taken the foot off the pedal a little with a couple of mildly received releases. It is staggering to think that rock’s ‘boy genius’ is now a 37 year old married man and that his lyrically documented anxieties of growing up have been realised. Salutations is a follow-up to last year’s Ruminations, a raw and desolate self-portrait comprised of ten tracks capturing Oberst alone behind a piano through an oppressive Omaha winter. Salutations offers these songs again but fleshed-out in the way Oberst originally intended along with seven new tracks mixed in throughout. The combined track list brings the album to a heady 67 minutes and a subsequent lyrics sheet that unfolds like a table cloth and puts his feelings on stark display.
It would be a confronting picture without the brilliant arrangement of music that compliments it – as Ruminations already showed. Oberst has ventured down some diverse musical pathways throughout his career, from venom-spitting punk of Desaparecidos to the brooding electronica on 2005’s underrated Digital Ash for Digital Urn. Salutations, however is pretty much a straight step forward on the beaten path.
Oberst has done his familiar road trip south collecting the elements to reprise his distinctive brand of country-tinged folk melancholy. On this occasion he has brought in Nonesuch label mates the Felice Brothers, drummer Jim Keltner and a host of others making contributions such as folk legend Gillian Welch on backing vocals. The fiddles and slide guitar give Oberst a way to make a broader, more dynamic sound to his songs without losing too much of the humanity that he prefers to keep front and centre. What is different from previous releases though is an emphasis on the piano and harmonica. Only a few songs in it’s hard not be reminded of Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, and picturing the artist behind a piano with his mates getting stoned in the back shed on a balmy night, picking up whatever instruments are laying around and having a genuinely good time.
Opener Too Late to Fixate details Oberst’s failed attempts to find a deeper meaning in life with half-baked attempts at spiritualism only to succumb to the gravity of more tangible worldly gratifications. In this case fishing through alleys while his wife is on vacation for “someone to escort”. “No I don’t mind the money, it beats betting on sports”, he concedes. “And though it might get expensive, it’s cheaper than divorce.” You would expect this is purely allegorical, however it seems from the offset the Oberst hasn’t just stopped caring if you like him anymore, he’s actively showcasing the most unforgivable traits of his personality to seemingly push back against the alt-pop stardom and adoration that has been weighing him down for more than half his life now. It sets a sad and almost spiteful foundation for the remainder of the album which does make you lean forward and listen closer- whether you want to or not.
Lead single Gossamer Thin was released late 2016 and had already got its share of radio play. The track follows on with the same themes of fame and infidelity espousing lines like, “His wife doesn’t talk, hates when he’s gone, counts every skirt in his new entourage”. Fame is a recurrent theme across the album as Oberst name drops a host of public figures. On A Little Uncanny he mourns the loss of Robin Williams, Sylvia Plath and Christopher Hitchens, while American icons like Ronald Reagan, John Wayne and Jane Fonda are used across the release to express his complex feelings towards status and celebrity. This is expressed pertinently on Next of Kin, as he confesses, “I met Lou Reed and Patti Smith, it didn’t make me feel different. I guess I lost all my innocence way too long ago”.
Oberst’s unsteady quaver has lost none of its emotive force as he documents his day-drunk musings and existential roadblocks. While themes like death and suicidal ideation aren’t new to the songwriter a recent health scare frames it in new light. After having to cancel a Desaparecidos tour in 2015 after being diagnosed with a cerebral cyst these considerations have moved sadly from the philosophical to the mundane. Conor’s older brother Matthew Oberst, from fellow Saddle Creek act Sorry About Dresden also passed away in late 2016. It is unclear when or even if this happened during the writing and recording phase of Salutations, but even still it shows Oberst’s difficulties in processing the notion of mortality being realised in a tangible and ugly way. The pensive Empty Hotel by the Sea is particularly chilling:
“It’s not true Matthew, no it won’t be like before
They know exactly where you’re bound to be
In that presidential suite up on the thirty-seventh floor
With your fingers broken picking up your teeth
With the realisation you were in too deep
With some final words that no one will repeat
While the snow’s still falling softly on the beach
In that empty hotel by the sea”.
But this is the dark corner of what is largely a colourful gradient spanning the seventeen songs. On Napalm it’s the warped philosophy of war: “Breakfast of Napalm, burned down the place where we belong/ Archrivals make love, yeah they’ve got to keep it secret, they still do it with the lights on.” Typically Oberst always brings these things back to himself, as he spreads his anger “like agent orange”. There’s the familiar self-loathing on Afterthought: ‘I thought about breakfast but settled on wine, Always choose hunger over despair, and what’s possible over what’s there.” And there’s still plenty of the homespun wit we’ve come to expect on tracks like the closer Salutations: “The litter box has overflowed, the frozen dinner burned, my TV’s just reality, I can’t watch anymore.”
Conor Oberst is arguably one of the best and most important songwriters of the 21st Century so far. However so much of his brand was built around his youth and particularly the anxieties associated with growing up and facing the realities of a world you weren’t made for. Salutations revises these notions from a more mature standpoint but it doesn’t feel quite the same as it used to. For those that are familiar with his work it doesn’t reveal much about his talent or capacity as an artist that we didn’t know already. His first major-label solo release Conor Oberst in 2008 was charming because it sounded like he wasn’t really trying too hard. On Salutations it’s kind of the opposite – you feel like it’s a record he could produce is in his sleep and wish he had done a little more to define a narrative or sense of purpose to tie it all together. Given most of these songs were already released on Ruminations (albeit sounding very different), Salutations feels less like an album and more like a collection of seventeen new and generally good songs to add to Oberst’s already seismic catalogue.