Conor Oberst – Salutations (Nonesuch)

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What’s the best way to come back from the dead?  Answer: Remake your own requiem and dress the corpse in the clothes of The Pogues, Neil Young, Crowded House and Bob Dylan. 

Last year, holed up in snowbound Omaha, Nebraska, Connor Oberst hunkered down to lick his more than substantial wounds (including debilitating mental and physical ailments – even a brain cyst).  It was so bad he even had to retire from touring with his punk band Desaparecidos.

But instead of curling up into a ball, he took to writing.  The result was the very beautiful but sorrowful and sparse Ruminations.  That album was both introspective and polarising.  Fans loved it but felt its cynical coldness and its isolation.  It was an uncomfortable listen, partly because of the simple arrangements and partly because of the fragility of Oberst’s quivering ‘please don’t beat me up’ vocals.

But what if you could re-track these, the way they were in your head?  What if you could get in a band and do them with the vigour you always wanted, all along.  The way, perhaps, they should have been?  Billed as a companion to Ruminations, Salutations is signing on with a rework of ten songs from the earlier album.  And to do this proper-like, he’s signed up the Felice Brothers and legendary session drummer Jim Keltner (Ringo Starr, John Lennon, etc – he was voted one of Rolling Stone’s top 100).  And then add to that a few more, just to prove that there’s still life in the corpse.

Ok, so bringing in a band won’t totally remove the pains of the world.  They are too well sewn into the fabric of those lyrics but what you can do if augment how they are worn.  AN all throughout Salutations you can see that Oberst has re-gained his strength, so he delivers many of these very clever lines with much more confidence.  Take Overdue, for example.  This one could as easily be a depressing Wilco number.  It’s a sarcastic dig at an inevitable downward spiral.  He’s desperately seeking respite from the mundane and monotony of daily life.  It’s a bad choice life, too, accented by things like bad sex, bad drug habits, bad clubs.  (“Sometimes this house looks like a death camp”).  “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.”

Then straight after that one, you get Afterthought, which really should be sung by Shane McGowan.  It rollicks along with a Gaelic pub canter and a punch-drunk stagger.  How can he make a song of desperate regret into a public house sing along? Imagine this sung to the tune of the Pogues’ version of If I Should Fall From The Grace With God: “Because it isn’t as though we get what we want / No matter how hard or long we have fought / And my happiness is a mere afterthought / When I’m with her I keep it in mind / Then she leaves and I’ve run out of time.”

On so many of these reworked songs the use of a full band breathes new life.  I can’t help thinking this is like some kind of sketchy plan B for getting over bad times.  The sparse originals had such a miserable existence.   But with more players tunes like the fragile Gossamer Thin have become more like a racy waltz.  Dance away your heartache to a double time shuffle.  And when thirst finally gets the better of you, go to the bar, look for a “confidant who’ll never let you down” (Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out).  Then flip out to the grandiose instrumental in the middle of Barbary Coast (Later) which has changed the original withering of spirit into a feeling of hope and endurance.  It has literally turned this song around, for the better.

But not every song changes, You All Loved Him Once still contains its tragic themes of betrayal and lost idealism.  This time you can’t transform it.  Nor should you: “You all loved him once when the future was opaque / His reassuring visions were the pillars of your faith / Through a thousand false horizons / He would always fly it straight / You all loved him once, that turned to hate.”  It’s not clear but it feels biographical.  Perhaps Oberst feels he had been betrayed by his friends and colleagues when his illness took hold.  Sometimes isolation from others feels like you have been outcast.

The new tracks dovetail nicely with the Ruminations offspring, particularly the opener Too Late To Fixate.  This one’s got a lovely kitchen sink drama to it and, inevitably, plenty of a wry Dylanesque narrative about bad life choices and wallowing in self regret: My wife takes a vacation / One she can’t afford / I go fishing the alleys / For someone to escort / No, I don’t mind the money /
It beats betting on sports / And though it might get expensive / It’s cheaper than divorce”

The songs I’ve selected above are only a snatch at what’s here on this album. They barely cover it.  Some critics have been scathing.  They don’t understand why these tunes need to be redone.  What was wrong with the way they were.  But I don’t care that 10 of the songs were previously recorded.  In fact, I think they are much better, stronger, more poignant.  Who else can write a tune that’s as rousing as a Ceileh jig and as ironic and biting as Anytime Soon?  It’s a song that that challenges the monotony of those comfortably numb in their Midwestern existence.  Perhaps these people could be relatives or friends.  They are very familiar.  I imagine they live in suburbia, in tidy beige homes with well-maintained lawn furniture.  Whoever they are, they remain unbearably constant: “Nothing’s gonna change here anytime soon / Catching fish in the morning; get drunk before noon / Watching little brown bubbles floating in the spoon / Could be soaking in a warm bath, or back in the womb / Anytime, anytime soon.”

The more I listen, the more I like and the more I discover.  For me, these are the best albums.  A layer cake, if you will, with plenty of bitter sweetness, the occasional dose of saccharine and the tiniest hint of strychnine to make you feel a little queasy.   Perhaps that’s a ‘slight’ reminder of the sick bed where this was all originally written.

Tim Gruar