Salutations is, according to Wikipedia, Conor Oberst's 11th solo studio album. Would that it were so simple! I did a quick headcount across all the other projects in which he's a key player (Bright Eyes, Commander Venus, Monsers Of Folk, to mention a few…) and came out with a figure closer to 28 records – a staggering body of work for a 37-year-old to have produced. Presumably he never sleeps, or does so with a guitar in his hands and a four-track set to record. This latest release is being presented as a companion piece to last year's Ruminations album, which is probably the most solo of his solo albums – mostly songs built with just voice and guitar or piano. Conor recorded Ruminations while snowbound in his native Nebraska and were demo versions of a new set of songs intended for an album with a full band. The feedback from his circle about these stripped-back, emotionally-raw recordings was so positive he took their advice and released it as it was last year. That didn't stop him progressing with his original plans though, so a mere five months later we have Salutations, containing full-band versions of the songs on Ruminations in addition to another seven songs he must have written in the time it took to assemble a suitable group of players and book a studio. I told you: he never sleeps.
To call Ruminations a companion piece, then, seems a little short thrift for a 17-track album of beautifully recorded, beautifully crafted songs which feature an all-star cast of players and guest stars. The album was recorded with the Felice Brothers and superstar drummer and co-producer Jim Keltner, probably best known for his work on solo projects for ex-Beatles John, George and Ringo, as well as both Travelling Wilburys albums. There are also guest appearances here from Jim James, Gillian Welch, Blake Mills, Jonathan Wilson, M Ward, and Maria Taylor. The orchestration is very rich throughout the album: harmonica, squeezebox, bubbly organs, insanely brilliant drumming and percussion throughout and, strikingly on this album, some truly delicious fiddle playing and gorgeous string arrangements. Oberst's songwriting has often felt classic, and it is particularly so here on a collection of songs I feel quite comfortable calling the best work of his long, full career so far.
For me, the work he did with the Mystic Valley Band, a group of musician friends he met on the road and put together as a vehicle for his solo songs – before inviting the writers in the band to contribute songs of their own to the superb Outer South album – had been the musical high-point until now. With that group he really cemented himself as someone who can adequately pick up the musical legacy of 70s rock and folk musicians like The Band, Bob Dylan, Neil Young and their ilk. It seems strange to realise that whole period of Oberst's music is nearly a decade old now but it's a vein he's continued to mine, leading him to where he is now on this formidable batch.
I had lost track of the singer in recent years and it sounds like he's been through the wringer. In 2013 Oberst was accused online of having raped a fan backstage in 2003 – a claim which was devastating for the musician, who struggled to come to terms with the idea people could believe him capable of such a thing. Under legal advice he sued the woman who made the allegations, eventually leading to her fully recanting in a public statement that admitted she had lied for attention during a difficult period in her life. The stress took its toll on Oberst though, who had tried to continue touring full-pace while this was ongoing only to be stopped in his tracks from ill health. They found a cyst in his brain and worryingly high blood pressure, factors which influenced his move back to Nebraska and a (pretty short) rest period, in which he got to work on these songs.
Oberst songs often feel like standards, but his unique voice and expressive lyrics, his ability to find endless ways of converting difficulty into poetry, elevate them every time. On Salutations he seems to have taken this nadir within his life and converted it into a musical zenith. While there are often fragments of melody that remind me of moments of earlier work here he seems to have distilled it all into its smoothest blend yet. His melodic tricks allow his words to go wherever they choose, no need for that obvious rhyme when we're already sold on the metre. He expertly throws modern imagery into a musical backdrop that always has one foot in folksy, often celtic-tinged roots that lend it a sort of ancient gravitas. Whenever his acerbic wit rises up you get treated to some wonderfully clever turns of phrase. On 'Next Of Kin' when he sings: “Get too drunk and you can't perform/Something dies when a star is born/I spread my anger like Agent Orange/I was indiscriminate” I get goose bumps every time.
This record is at the same time more musically sophisticated, and more emotionally raw than anything I've heard from him in years – it’s truly a great, consistently cohesive record. Normally I'd complain that 17 songs is a few too many but, each time I get to the end of this collection, I want to go right back to the start again. Perhaps it's the way he takes you up with one song, only to bring you back down again with the next. There's a momentum that keeps you on the tracks, it drives you along at times and then lets up whenever you need it to.
Be warned though: there a certain darkness at play here throughout. You get the sense from songs like 'Overdue' and 'Till St Dymphna Kicks Us Out' that Oberst is a man wrestling with a desire to surrender himself to a haze of drink and drugs. The former seems to be about a heroin doss house, “I'm in bed beside some jail bait/Megan's passed out on the staircase/Michael's searchin' for a good vein/Tomorrow comes we'll do the same thing”, while the latter lends similar bleakness to a favourite New York bar Oberst recently bought: “Don't want to be a casualty/Before you make it to the bar/And hide your shakes, and worried face/Just sit down in the back.” He's a guy in a constant struggle with his inner demons, a tendency toward depression and a hunger for hedonism. Guys like this are in their element when they're given distraction and when they stop they can crash – something which goes a long way to explaining Oberst's insane level of prolificity. This record is truly a wonderful and beautiful work, but lets get Conor back on the road and into his element asap… I expect he'll need another decade before it's safe to go this deep down the rabbit hole again!