Ah Conor Oberst. Feels like it was just the other day that I was writing about him…
Oh wait, that’s because he only released the album Ruminations in October of last year. If you’re thinking five months is a relatively short gap between albums, realize that Ruminations was a fairly bare bones release. It consisted of ten relatively simple tracks that had been floating around in Oberst’s head for a while (hence the album title), and was recorded in all of 48 hours. Oberst said of these tracks: “I recorded them quick to get them down but then it just felt right to leave them alone.” Each song only featured acoustic guitar, piano, harmonica, and Oberst’s voice, which complemented the rudimentary instrumentation with verses gloomy enough to get it labeled “the feel bad album of the fall.”
Despite the hastened recording process, the end result was pretty impressive (full review here). Each track was well-composed, thanks to Oberst’s talents as a songwriter, but was best understood in the context of “these are just sketches of songs.” This lead to the question of what Ruminations would have sounded like if its tracks were given the chance to be more fully fleshed out.
On Salutations, Oberst answers this quite literally by re-recording Ruminations’s ten tracks with a full band, and then adding seven new tracks on top of that. That’s right – Ruminations can now be thought of as The Salutations Demos. The acoustic guitar, piano, and harmonica are all still there, but Oberst is now joined by session drummer Jim Keltner (who co-produced the album with Oberst) as well as his friends the Felice Brothers who provide accordion, violin, and backing guitar and vocals. There’s even some electric guitar and synthesizer dotted throughout the album, giving it more of a “folk rock” feel than Ruminations.
For the most part, the expanded sound on Salutations works out pretty well. The Felice Brothers have perfected the type of Americana instrumentals heard throughout the album during their own expansive career, and there’s a reason why Oberst calls them his favorite band on the album’s booklet. They also sound drunk on about half of their recordings, which might be why the retooled version of drinking song “Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out” sounds so good. Elsewhere, the fuller sound gives “The Rain Follows the Plow” some country bona fides, and the added electric guitar really brings out the swagger of “A Little Uncanny.”
At the same time, other tracks on Salutations worked better with the minimalist solo instrumentation found on Ruminations. For instance, “Counting Sheep” is a track that depicts Oberst laying in a hospital bed, contemplating his own mortality after doctors discovered a cyst on his brain. On Ruminations, he takes this stark reminder and lashes out at others, singing “Little ______ drowned in a pool, ______ got killed walking to school, hope it was slow, hope it was painful,” with both names unintelligibly censored. On Saluations, these lyrics are softened to “Little Louise drowned in a pool, Billy got killed walking to school, hope it was quick, hope is was peaceful,” and the song in general loses its resentful edge. Similarly, the lyric “when it came time to stand with him, you scattered with the rats” on the defiant “You All Loved Him Once” worked best when it actually was Oberst standing alone on Ruminations. And while the Salutations version of “Barbary Coast (Later)” has plenty of its own merits, you can really hear the desperation in Oberst’s voice on the Ruminations version when he sings “don’t want you to feel sad baby, I take everything back, I swear I do” by himself.
While this debate over superior versions is somewhat unavoidable given the album’s context, it does have the unfortunate effect of overshadowing the seven new tracks that appear on Salutations. These tracks are all consistently good, and build upon the country-rock that Oberst had been moving towards on Upside Down Mountain. This is most strongly heard on the track “Napalm,” which features twangy electric guitars and organ-like synthesizers throughout, and even has Oberst attempting a Bob Dylan-esque yodel a couple times. “Anytime Soon” is similarly rocking, and contains the album’s second reference to getting drunk before noon (“Barbary Coast (Later)” is the first). The slower songs, meanwhile, rely heavily on the Felice Brothers’ contributions, and tracks like the opener “Too Late To Fixate” and “Overdue” (which was co-written with Jim Felice) sound more like the Felice Brothers featuring Conor Oberst than the opposite. All of these new tracks seem like they would have been out of place on the more modest and bleak Ruminations, perhaps with the exception of the title track – a piano ballad where Oberst laments “I wanna hold you til the world dissolves, but we just can’t get attached.”
It would have certainly been a different experience listening to Salutations without hearing Ruminations first, but Oberst is the type of artist with a dedicated fanbase that has followed him for years, readily listening to each new project as it’s released. Therefore, it’s likely that relatively few of them will have such an experience. For the majority of Oberst fans, though, such comparisons between Ruminations and Salutations are inevitable. Both albums have their merits, and it’s doubtful anyone will dismiss Salutations as cash grab. That said, the context of Ruminations being recorded quickly just to get the ideas out of Oberst’s head is a bit more compelling than the rehearsed “let’s get musicians together and make an album” of Salutations. By its own merits it’s a very good album, and the new tracks are sure to please anyone who enjoyed Upside Down Mountain or his work with the Mystic Valley band, yet it serves better to complement Ruminations than to supersede it.