Conor Oberst never shies away from shifts in sound, but his constant has always been the unabashed candor of his poetry. Salutations has some of Conor’s most downhearted lyrics to date. Sonically, Ruminations allowed for the empty space to amplify the reflections. But, on Salutations (which contains new versions of all 10 tracks from Ruminations and an additional 7 new songs), Conor brings a full backing band into the mix along with other guest musicians. But somewhere along the way, earnestness is lost.
To begin on a positive note, the rework of ‘Next of Kin’ amplifies the original composition. The bubbling backing guitars, the brush on the drums, and soft piano is strangely comforting given the subject matter (the opening lines describe a man who has not moved on from the death of his wife). When the wailing of the harmonica comes into play, Conor’s lamentations are fully realized. Then, there’s the politically charged and raucous ‘Napalm’. While not as rollicking as ‘Roosevelt Room’ from Outer South, ‘Napalm’ still punches you in the gut. There’s also the sea-shanty stylings of ‘Afterthought’ where he sings about his tie, “the one with the hammer and sickle design.” For as beautiful as Conor’s poetry can be, he never holds back when it comes to social commentary and political statements. The woozy, ‘Overdue’ opens with, “I’m in bed beside some jail bait.” He’s direct and unabashed. The track follows along a post-party scene, where Conor chronicles how repetitious the days have become while noting how draining it is. It’s times like this that he is able to marry his infamous youthful yearnings with adult realism.
But, for all the good, there is an eerie lackluster to many of the tracks. The prime example is ‘Gossamer Thin’; on Ruminations, it was stark and moody, with the minimalist approach underscoring the heavy subject matter. But on Salutations, the piano is nearly stripped away for guitar and is “fleshed out.” Comparing the two versions, it seems clear that the song was designed to be exposed bones, but with the new composition there is a warmth that doesn’t serve a purpose. There is a lullaby quality that strips the earnestness for woozy listlessness. This also occurs on ‘Tachycardia’; on Ruminations, it opened the album and the punch of the opening piano chords heralded the listener into something new. On Salutations, it’s a mild mannered country-folk hymn. There are build ups, but the firecracker never fully bursts.
With Conor, the lack of solid footing is not due to lack of integrity. He is known for being restless and exploring new sounds. Even the album cover signals a change. Where Ruminations was blacks and blues, him working in his home, Salutations is bright and colorful, although he is face down in a pool. This dichotomy of a lazy summer’s day and risk of death represents the push and pull of Conor’s lyrics and compositions. His lyrics dig at the darkness of the human condition while the music is the façade; the music tries to reach that joyous state but winds up settling in a pool floaty with a half empty can of beer. This is the sound of depression. Great art is not born out of depression. It is born out of the escape, of the attempt to understand and conquer it; the unquenchable need to bring the abstract to the physical world and ask, “Who else is with me?” But what happens when it all becomes too much? What happens when that drive you have relied on your whole life sputters and smokes to a slow, inevitable death?
Anyone familiar with Conor Oberst knows depression and drugs are two hallmark subjects. But in Salutations there is a stark thread of heroin use: “tracks down his arms,” in ‘Gossamer Thin’; “Michael’s searching for a good vein,” in ‘Overdue’; “watching little brown bubbles floating in the spoon,” in ‘Anytime Soon’. This could be chalked up to artistry if it wasn’t for the album-closing title track, which reads like a goodbye letter; “Salutations, to whom it may concern.” He describes a house in disarray, booze running out, and day dreams of not living up to the expectations of others. He sings, “Swear off temptation/ But what if it’s what I really want to do?” Most striking though is his reflecting on almost drowning in a pool and being resuscitated; “You could have left me in the water/ but you made me live again.” You made me live again; Conor had no say.
In comparison to his contemporaries, Salutations is a good album. But, Conor Oberst is an artist whose current work begs to be compared to past work. And in that realm, the album suffers. I struggle with this as I type these words. Who am I to set these expectations? But, even with the artists we hold dear, we need to take a step back. Salutations is good, but it is apparent it could have been better. Rather than swing for the fences, Conor and crew settled for a base hit that didn’t move any runners on base. But strangely enough, optimism comes from the composition of the outro of the album closer, ‘Salutations’. The slide guitar and subtle strings take on an upward inflection, as if leading to a sunrise, not a sunset.