If ever your day's too peachy and you're missing out on that sense of feeling wounded, cold and desperately alone, then last year's achingly beautiful "Ruminations" ought to be your go-to album. Written in snowbound Omaha, Nebraska, after Conor Oberst was invalided off his punk band, Desaparecidos' tour with debilitating mental and physical ailments (brain cyst included), it was sorrowful, cynical and sparse. Despite reeking of mortality, it still managed to flip the bird at this wearying world and remind us that Oberst was not dead yet.
By March 2017, we've gone from "Ruminations", fragile and introspective, to "Salutations", bolder and more outward-looking. Billed as a companion to last year's album, it gives us the ten "Ruminations" songs with a full band (as he originally planned to release them), including the Felice Brothers and drum legend Jim Keltner, the album's 'spiritual leader' according to Oberst. Generously, we also receive seven new songs. Electrifying what was bare and unplugged brings the inevitable (and complimentary) Dylan analogy, whilst the verve and songwriting acumen of Neil Young, The Pogues and Crowded House is evident throughout.
Whilst the original songs remain lyrically rooted in Weltschmerz, gone is the quivering, 'please don't punch me' timbre of Oberst's voice. The full-band clout brings invigoration to many songs, so "Gossamer Thin" becomes a beefed-up waltz, with which to dance away the heartache. Harmonies in "Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out" give a sense that there might be a 'confidant who'll never let you down' when you eventually hit the bar. The majestic instrumental break on "Barbary Coast (Later)" makes the chance of enduring, not withering, feel much more achievable. It's not all uplifting (surprisingly). Betrayal and lost idealism in "You All Loved Him Once" amplify to 'grown-man-crying' levels, the plaintive guitar amply coaxing the tear ducts.
New tracks measure up to their illustrious ancestors. "Too Late To Fixate" constructs a wry Dylanesque narrative of regretful life choices. "Overdue" yearns for badly-needed respite from mundane struggle, its opening vignette, 'I'm in bed beside some jailbait,/ Megan's passed out on the staircase,/ Michael's searching for a good vein,' channelling his inner Bukowski. The shoutalong chorus of the lovelorn "Afterthought" is as catchy as it is troubled and "Salutations" composes a letter 'To whom it may concern' ruminating on the results of aging, such as 'a burned-out lightbulb above my head that's stalling my ideas'.
With lines like, 'Christmas has passed; it's just yellow snow', you'll be relieved to find him on more lively, sardonic form. Listening to "Salutations" is like watching the end of an episode of Pet Rescue; after intense public suffering, survival and revival predominate. He lives to slight another day.