Bored out of my mind growing up in the suburbs, girl-crazy to the nth degree, and sensitive to the point of Woody Allen neuroticism, I found Bright Eyes in seventh grade, and it was a match made in heaven. Anesthetized by the Levittown bubble I grew up in, my mind’s eye turned inwards and fixed its gaze on my own emotional turbulence. My whims and emotional tides were infinitely more real to me than the sea of housing developments and strip malls that surrounded me in every direction. Scribbling poems about how many feelings I felt in the dimly lit basement of my parents’ house, I started to notice a song that was playing on some random playlist I found online. Mesmerized, I followed the words like Alice followed the White Rabbit down the hole. The chorus was the first time I experienced the emotional quaver of Conor Oberst’s singing voice, ripe with the same angst that fueled my basement hermeticism. The words, though, are what sent me spiraling down into the heart of the demented, masochistic Wonderland of Conor Oberst’s Bright Eyes. “I want a lover I don’t have to love//I want a boy who’s so drunk he doesn’t talk//Where’s the kid with the chemicals//I got a hunger and I can’t seem to get full//I need some meaning I can memorize//The kind I have always seems to slip my mind.”
Don’t even get me started on Desapercidos’ 2002 Read Music/Speak Spanish, a vicious accusation of an album that focused on smashing the veneer of US consumer culture and exposing the rotting capitalist pathologies lurking beneath. In my tumultuous inner-life, as well as the chaos of the globalizing world, Conor Oberst was helping me make sense of it all.The tremor of urgency in Oberst’s music began to wane with the 2007 Bright Eyes release Cassadaga. I was afflicted with the heartache of growing apart from a best friend. I held on to hope that the 2008 release of Oberst’s first, self-titled album, would return the maniacal Oberst I knew and loved. The music that stared at the sun and reported back, in cathartic prose, the secrets of life. Alas, we continued to grow apart. Maybe he was growing up, and I felt left behind, but it sounded to me as if Oberst’s role as professional musician had usurped his identity as an artist. On his new album, Salutations, Oberst offers the ten tracks of his 2016 solo album, Ruminations, and seven additional songs with the accompaniment of folk rockers The Felice Brothers and legendary drummer Jim Keltner. With the accompaniments and additional tracks, Salutations feels like a synthesis of the hyperbolic, warbling wordsmith of Bright Eyes that captured my imagination, and the Oberst who has matured past his neurotic self-destruction and focused his energy on the craft of songwriting.
Having a full band fleshes out the skeletal tracks of Ruminations, and adds some Americana-Rock flare that’s been characteristic of Oberst’s music since Cassadaga. “Napalm,” one of the tracks that wasn’t on Ruminations, embodies this flare with meandering electric guitar, screeching fiddle, and locomotive harmonica, with an energized Oberst singing out about a “quixotic quest on a hot summer’s night.” Overall, this album feels like a pivot for Oberst, reviving pet themes from his past like self-destruction and the difficulty of placing ourselves within our contemporary world in songs like “Gossamer Thin.” The album also has songs that express the connections that Oberst has made in his attempt to make sense of himself in his nods to cultural icons like Oliver Sacks and “poor Robin Williams” on “A Little Uncanny.” But really, the album cover says it all for Salutations. Oberst floating face down in a swimming pool. He played with the concept of drowning several times on the Bright Eyes’ Fevers and Mirrors. Now, on the title track for Salutations, Oberst addresses a near-death experience: nearly drowning in a neighbor’s pool. “You could have left me in the water//but you made me live again.” Having catapulted into the public eye at an early age for his music, Oberst admits several times to feeling burned out, and his acknowledgement of his personal struggles in this album is what gives it that familiar feel that his post-Cassadaga music lacked for me. I don’t want Oberst to be miserable, but I also can’t tolerate his music turning its back on the universal human struggle. When Oberst articulates his struggle, it electrifies his music. I feel this electricity in Salutations. –DILLON ALEXANDER