Review: Conor Oberst Ruminations (2016) and Salutations (2017) (Nonesuch)

In 2014, Conor Oberst filed a lawsuit against a woman who had accused him of rape a decade earlier.  Jezebel wrote a fantastic article on the saga explaining the issue.  Then, in July of 2014, his accuser admitted that she had lied and submitted a notarized statement claiming that her accusations were false.  By this point though, a lot of damage had already been done.  The Jezebel article cites many people who sided with the accuser and highlights the difficulties this created for the self-proclaimed feminist Oberst.  It also discusses the quandary it put him in: he encourages women to come forward when there they have been abused but he categorically denied any wrong doing.  And, he is famous and influential and a rock star, so his denials seem par for the course.  The whole issue cut him deep and fueled much of the lyrical fire for the simple, sparse, pained, and utterly lonely record, Ruminations (Nonesuch), which was released in October 2016.

Plunking pianos, sharp cries from his harmonica and Conor’s quavering voice across ten tracks of betrayal, abandonment, alcoholism, and sadness are all you get.  Knowing where he’s coming from psychologically helps the listener empathize with him in more concrete terms than on previous albums.  On the first track “Tachycardia,” he uses sensory language to describe being in the courtroom and nightmares he had at the time.  The bare nature of the record, recorded in an evening or two and never meant to be released as a record proper, makes it one of his best records in his career spanning several bands and projects.  It is lonely and sad, but ultimately hopeful in that by the end he’s singing telling us to “Rise and shine, get out of bed, get ready for the day” even if the destination is a dive bar called “St. Dymphna” but his friends are there and together they’ll talk of their pain, buy rounds, and believe in the love that exists between them. 
Simply, a great record.

Salutations (Nonesuch, March 2017), on the other hand, is not.  It takes the ten songs from Ruminations adds seven more tracks and— here’s the kicker, adds a band.  What results is something derivative of indie, country, folk-rock.  It’s largely non-descript and forgettable.   Perhaps hearing Ruminations poisoned hearing these songs as creative but the additional musical arrangement seems only to muddle the sincerity of his message.  Oberst claims that this record was a joy to record being together with others and you can here some of that glee in “Napalm,” and “Too Late to Fixate” but it isn’t as impressive.  However, given the trauma of the past couple years in seeing fans and friends disappear I don’t blame him for wanting to share the stage and share the heavy burden of life that has haunted him since his earliest recordings. 
On Ruminationslisten to:
Gossamer Thin         
Counting Sheep
Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out
On Salutations Listen to:
Empty Hotel By The Sea


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