In the autumn of 2015, following a brief period spent in hospital due to laryngitis, anxiety and exhaustion, Conor Oberst, known for his work as the frontman of Bright Eyes and Desaparecidos, suffered a health scare after discovering he had a cyst in his brain. Thankfully, it transpired that the cyst had likely been there for most of the singer’s life and, for the time being, presented no ramifications for his health. Nonetheless, the stress that came with Oberst’s stint of health complications led the musician to cancelling his tour as part of Desaparecidos and, now taking various medication including anti-depressants, the musician secluded himself within his home in Omaha, Nebraska and, without intending to, composed an entire record’s worth of songs. Not wanting to let his abrupt creative streak go to waste, Oberst recorded these 10 songs within a 48-hour timeframe at his home early in 2016, releasing the album later that year, calling it Ruminations. Given its homespun nature and the context that led to its composition, along with the fact that it featured solely Oberst singing and playing guitar, piano and the harmonica, as is poignantly captured by the album’s artwork, Ruminations was the most hushed and meditative album the singer had recorded to date, with the end product being one of the best singer-songwriter records of last year. Now, just five months after the release of Ruminations, Oberst has released its full band sister album, Salutations, consisting of reworked versions of the 10 songs with a backing band, complete production and seven additional compositions written especially for this album. It must be said, as someone who found the beauty of Ruminations to arise largely asa result of its quiet, contemplative nature, I was sceptical of the decision to revise the songs from the album in a fully realised format. In fact, I must admit that I went into Salutations almost with somewhat of a prejudice against it. However, after overcoming my initial doubts about the album’s purpose, I came to realise that many of these compositions have come to blossom beautifully in their developed arrangements. Indeed, whilst the ruminative lyrics that arose from Oberst’s time in an isolated state lend themselves well to the skeletal nature of Ruminations, his songwriting style was really no different from usual on that album. As such, these pieces have come to fruition splendidly with the full force of a backing band behind them. Ultimately, therefore, there is certainly a reason for Salutations to exist, as it provides the form that these compositions would have likely taken if the events that led to the inception of Ruminations had not happened. In this sense, Salutations simply offers an alternate take on these songs. It doesn’t cheapen the sentiment behind them, rather it simply reconsiders them in the format that Oberst likely subconsciously wrote them for at the time. As a result, comparing the two albums is rather difficult, in that they are both strong for conflicting reasons. Nonetheless, Salutations is most definitely successful in what was an audacious undertaking, and the alternative view of the songs provided by their reimagination on this record arguably enhances our understanding of them.
Salutations isn’t simply the 10 songs from Ruminations re-recorded with the seven new songs thrown on the record’s backend as some additional tracks, rather the new compositions are interspersed amongst the old ones, with the familiar and unfamiliar tracks both intertwining very effectively. The record even opens with a new piece from Oberst, Too Late to Fixate, which establishes the extent to which these pieces were composed in a similar frame of mind, thus resulting in a wholly cohesive release that, without the benefit of context, would show no signs of being a mixed bag of newly reworked songs and entirely new songs. What’s more, being amongst the more instrumentally indulgent tracks on the record, making use of accordion, violin, harmonica, piano and electric guitar, Too Late to Fixate seemingly stands as an embrace of the differing approach taken on this album compared to its precursor. This being said, the lyrical themes of longing, regret, desire and rumination, all of which pertain to a story of conjugal crisis, convey an evident degree of common ground when analysed beside the cuts from Ruminations. Similarly, just as the style of songwriting and delivery that appeared on Ruminations was incredibly evocative of Bob Dylan’s more stripped back releases, Too Late to Fixate displays many parallels to the legendary singer-songwriter’s endeavours with his elaborate backing bands. Although Dylan’s profound influence on Oberst has always been evident, the artist’s two most recent albums exhibit this to a greater extent than usual. Indeed, Oberst’s brief, witty lines peppered throughout his narration, such as altering the diction of ‘bad medication’ to ‘bad meditation’ and snidely remarking that gambling is cheaper than divorce, evoke Dylan’s storytelling chops, just as the climactic chorus, with its forceful double tracked vocals and Americana-inspired instrumentation, recall the luminary’s output during the mid-70s, particularly with albums such as Blood on the Tracks and Desire. Napalm, another new song for Salutations, is an exuberant rock and roll jam, featuring a duelling electric guitar and fiddle, as well as some bubbly keyboard lines, not to mention the continuation of amusing one-liners (“They carpet bomb the city / Thank God they spared the mall”), all of which is highly suggestive of Dylan’s mid-60s work, particularly the first side of Bringing It All Back Home. However, it must be said that, although Oberst’s influence from Bob Dylan is worn proudly on his sleeve, it doesn’t necessarily overshadow the artist’s own definitive identity which is present on many of these songs. This is, of course, benefited by Oberst’s uniquely raspy voice, but it extends beyond simple aesthetics, emanating from his cohesive balance of brusque causticity as it is delivered atop decadent country rock jams.
In terms of the songs initially released on Ruminations, noticeable care is taken to preserve the pure candour and emotion evident on some of the original versions of these pieces. Tachycardia, for instance, introduced Ruminations last year with one of Oberst’s most heartrending vocal performances to date, set against the funereal melancholia of the lyrics that touch on everything from Oberst’s struggles with drugs and alcohol to the stress that came with the false rape allegations levied at him a few years ago, all of which is wrapped up in the overarching imagery of failing physical health. The revamped version of the song as it appears on Salutations upholds the quiet apprehension of the original, but progresses it beyond this point. Indeed, the soft introduction, played by two gentle guitars, allows Oberst’s doleful vocals to, once again, move the listener. However, the addition of more instruments, such as the downtrodden drumbeat and the tense piano, build the piece up to a climax that aptly reflects and captures the strangely hopeful conclusion of the song. This happens as the singer offers respite from his mournful retrospections to celebrate the ceaseless new experiences that the world has to offer, represented by the Louisiana Purchase Exposition’s unveiling of the Palace of Electricity to a planet still largely ignorant to the phenomenon of electricity. Other renditions of songs featured on Ruminations simply fulfil the purpose of an electric version as one would expect, but to no less effective results. A Little Uncanny stood out as one of the more fiery songs on Ruminations and, as such, is developed into an explosive folk rock jam on Salutations, with the electric guitar and keyboard incidentals, along with the propulsive double tracked vocals over the chorus, all being integrated into this originally acoustic song with no hitches to speak of. Indeed, the rebooted songs featured on Salutations feel familiar whilst also being reworked sufficiently enough as to justify the existence of these alternative cuts, occasionally even providing some extra insight into the thought processes behind some of these compositions.
Whilst Salutations is undeniably a companion album to Ruminations, it is also a record that succeeds on many of its own merits, rather than solely on those established by its predecessor. As a result, the seven songs premiered on this album don’t feel like additions included simply to pad out the runtime, rather they are crucial to the project’s development and overall purpose. Beyond the context provided by Salutations that shines a new light on Ruminations, the selection of songs on this album are plainly enjoyable folk rock tunes, captured effectively by the animated performances of the artist’s backing band and elevated to remarkable heights by Oberst’s impassioned performances and poignant lyrics. Ultimately, therefore, Salutations is, quite simply, another strong addition to Oberst’s extensive back catalogue and further testament to his abilities as a songwriter.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10