What was it that somebody once said about the best laid plans of veteran indie rockers often going awry?
Last October, Conor Oberst released his fourth solo record, Ruminations. He wasn’t supposed to. He had a slew of songs written and, during an especially bleak Nebraskan winter, had demoed them over the course of 48 hours - just his voice, the acoustic guitar, the harmonica and the piano. He sent these sketches to his label, Nonesuch, just to let them know where he was at; after all, he’d been through a particularly turbulent time in his personal life not long before. They loved the recordings so much that they insisted he put them out as they were.
That hadn’t been Oberst’s intention. He’d wanted to flesh them out with a full band, in the style of his last record, Upside Down Mountain. That album was probably his most commercial in a long while - in aesthetic terms, it leaned closely towards I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, the 2005 Bright Eyes LP that is Oberst’s most successful and accessible work - and arguably his masterpiece. This folky style, all slide guitars and acoustic strumming, was what he’d had planned for the songs that ended up on Ruminations, too.
At least, that’s the party line. Ruminations was Oberst’s finest record in a very long while and it’s difficult to believe that the sparse, exposed-nerve nature of the recordings wasn’t how they were always supposed to be, especially given the subject matter. He penned this particular collection in the wake of the most difficult period of his adult life. He stood accused of rape in 2014 by a fan on the internet, who would later go on to recant the story and confirm it as false - but not before Oberst had been profoundly affected psychologically.
Not long afterwards, at the end of the year, he was hospitalised in Florida in the middle of a tour with his political, almost-hardcore side project Desaparecidos with what turned out to be a cyst on the brain. Mike Mogis, Oberst’s foil in Bright Eyes, summed it up best: “when I first heard the demos, I was a little worried,” he told Vulture last September. “I could hear how emotionally distraught Conor was.”
Little wonder, right? That sequence of events would drain anybody, and so it seemed such a neat way to tie things up creatively to end up with Ruminations, a persistently dark record written in the wake of all this trouble not in New York, where Oberst lived for thirteen years, or Los Angeles, where he owns a home, but back in Omaha in the middle of a winter harsh enough to lend generous amounts of pathetic fallacy to the music. The sparse, lonely instrumental palette fit the fatalist fixations and tales of pre-noon drunkenness like a glove. That Ruminations was apparently an accident takes serendipity to an improbable extreme.
All we can do is take Oberst at his word; he’s ploughed ahead and cut those tracks, plus an additional seven, with a host of collaborators, just like he’d always meant to. Salutations is a long way divorced from its predecessor, so much so that it doesn’t feel quite right to describe it as a companion piece. For a start, it was recorded in surroundings that probably couldn’t have been further removed from those in which Ruminations was realised; Oberst went to Malibu, to Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studios, and took his mates with him. Amongst them were The Felice Brothers, who are such good friends of his that they once took it upon themselves to flatter him with the highest possible level of sincerity.
There’s some real heavyweights, too, even if they feel like usual suspects by this point; Oberst’s Monsters of Folk bandmates Jim James and M. Ward, for instance, and Gillian Welch, who’s a longtime hero of his. Both the setting and cast of characters for Salutations suggest that he had a bloody good time making it, and sure enough there’s a sun-kissed, easy-going feel to the instrumentation that is plenty easy on the ears and, for the most part, massively out-of-kilter with the subject matter.
On Ruminations, when Oberst sung worryingly of track marks on “Gossamer Thin” or recounted his hospitalisation with “Counting Sheep”, you felt every quivering syllable; he sounded so bare, so exposed, so devastatingly adrift. Those tracks, the really emotionally intense ones, don’t hit home in anything like the same way on Salutations; it’s funny, the anaesthetising effect that breezy country guitars can have. “Tachycardia” opened Ruminations with a veritable gut punch, channeling the chest-thumping panic of those heinous false allegations through the lens of performance anxiety. Here, it turns up at the midpoint and sounds jarringly jaunty. It’s almost gentle, which represents a bizarre about-face from the cold sweat of the original.
There are, happily, some exceptions. “A Little Uncanny” namechecks a host of ultimately tragic celebrities, whether that’s because of premature death (Robin Williams, Sylvia Plath) or malign influence (Ronald Reagan, Jane Fonda’s ill-advised excursion to Vietnam). Oberst really comes out swinging on this new version, swept along by boisterous percussion and a genuinely groovy wurlitzer. The last track on Ruminations, “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out”, is a thoroughly lovely paean to the bar that was his local in the East Village, and on this slightly more rambunctious take, the affection shines through all the more, Oberst wearing a grin rather than a grimace as he celebrates the age-old tradition of putting the world to rights over a few.
Then, of course, there’s the fact that we have seven new tracks here; right off the bat, that fact draws a striking contrast with the taut Ruminations, and Salutations’ bloated running time isn’t going to do anything to dispel the suspicions of anybody who already views the project as a self-indulgent excuse for a bit of a jolly with his friends. In Oberst’s defence, he’s always been dizzyingly prolific and he’s never liked waste; if we take his solo career in isolation, he suffixed his self-titled 2008 LP with an EP of leftovers, Gentleman’s Pact, whilst the thirteen-track Upside Down Mountain ran to nearly an hour.
Some of the new cuts share a thematic throughline with the Ruminations material, especially the hazy melancholy of “Overdue”, centred around a co-dependent, drug-fuelled clique, and “Afterthought”, on which Oberst flirts with the Dylan comparisons we all thought he’d put to bed years ago. The title track, meanwhile, is liberal in its use of gorgeous noodling guitar, a sonic choice that justifies it only getting a full band airing and not having made the stripped-back grade back in October (lyrically, its insecurities certainly would’ve fit perfectly well).
Ultimately, your take on Salutations is probably going to come down to where you sit on the uncomfortable issue of whether artists do their best work when they’re tortured. Ruminations represents the definitive version of this collection, but for fans who shared Mogis’ concerns about Oberst’s state of mind off the back of it, there’ll surely be a little bit of relief at hearing the songs relayed without his demons being so relentlessly at this throat. We’ll never know how quite we’d have viewed Salutations if it’d been the only representation of these tracks, but it’s worth remembering that lyrically, they’re still Oberst’s best in an age - regardless of what they sound like. Ruminations is essential, then; consider Salutations its eccentric cousin, often engaging and occasionally difficult.