Salutations makes one feel that Oberst has lost faith in his individual creativity.
Conor Oberst’s Salutations is billed as a rearrangement of his raw 2016 solo album Ruminations with a full band, but it functions more as a slipshod cover album with some new songs sprinkled in. The 10 songs on Ruminations were seen as a gripping return to form by both fans and critics because they had a rare sense of intensity and urgency that’s been missing from his output in the past decade. Unfortunately, Salutations only irons out Oberst’s cagey writing and delivery, privileging middle-of-the-road country rock to the Spartan origins where Oberst only accompanied himself on guitar, piano and harmonica.
It wasn’t always this way: there was a time early in this century when Oberst was making music that no one else seemed capable of making. His twin wunderkind high points with Bright Eyes, Fevers and Mirrors and Lifted or The Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground, (recorded at ages 20 and 22 respectively) were an amalgam of large-scale Scott Walker-type productions with the emotional oversharing of 1980s D.C. emo and Jawbreaker. He quickly became one of the most analyzed indie stars since Morrissey. In early 2005, after years of growing hype, Oberst released two albums on the same day: I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning, which featured acoustic folk tunes, and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, which was a Cure-influenced collection of moody electronic songs. It’s no surprise in retrospect that I’m Wide Awake was the more lauded of the pair—at the time, the press was still looking to mint the next “New Dylan.” For his part, Oberst seemed aware of this as his music clearly gestured to this tradition, self-consciously mirroring music of the past that signaled terms like “voice of a generation,” “sincerity” and “authenticity.” From there, Oberst, both with Bright Eyes, solo, and with various backing bands, has largely operated in this folk rock idiom to consistently diminishing returns.
Ruminations, in its own mature way, seemed to buck this trend, illustrating the much missed emotional oversharing and curdled worldview of its creator. Coming after a health scare and a false but much-covered sexual assault accusation, one could read Ruminations as being much needed catharsis for its creator—it was a marvel to see a master of teenage emotions depict the slippery waters of adulthood and indie celebrity. Moreover, it also revealed Oberst’s amazing ability to be absolutely petty, but still be sincere enough to be ingratiating—he makes his own audience feel comfort in their own flaws. But the centrist overcorrection of Salutations proves that this was only a temporary episode in Oberst’s life.
More than anything, Salutations makes one feel that Oberst has lost faith in his individual creativity. The full band instrumentation feels rote throughout, sounding like a professional but generic bar band whose favorite album is Wilco’s Being There. And while there are moments of looseness and litheness, the arrangements negate all the sincerity and intimacy that made these songs feel so distinctive less than a year ago. Oberst’s vocal performances are similarly professional, but ultimately lifeless. On nearly every song, they sound more like an apprehensive scratch take versus an expressive performance. This vapidity extends to the seven new songs as well, which only add little or nothing to the work that Oberst has already put in.
It’s interesting to consider the power that Ruminations had in its recordings, which were largely completed in a 48 hour period. Highlights like “You All Loved Him Once,” “Next of Kin,” and “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out” all felt like classic Oberst songs, but were augmented by their spare recordings. By essentially putting his demos on display, Oberst was able to make his recording process confessional along with his music. The professional quality of Salutations doesn’t benefit these songs. In fact, it makes more sense to record these songs with a full band after a long tour cycle where they can get leaner and meaner from performing on the road. At this point, though, Oberst has crafted an utterly forgettable and lame record that will leave the listener asking: Who is this for?
Conor Oberst was once indie rock’s number one draft pick. But, as his career developed, it feels like he never got too deep in the playoffs. Continued interest in his output is an active reckoning with the past—with each record there is a hope for promise that “the next one” will be the masterpiece his potential promises. But that he, sadly, has never delivered on this premise. Or at least hasn’t delivered on since Fevers and Mirrors. More than anything, Salutations paints a portrait of Oberst as an aging grown man who yearns for simplicity and maybe a sense of fun. These songs do that—the casualness here that is welcoming for anyone who is genuinely interested in his wellbeing. But, for anyone else that’s looking for some kind of cathartic release, it’s hard to imagine anything other than indifference, if not outright disappointment.