Salutations is a difficult album to classify. On the one hand, it's a companion piece to last year's Ruminations, with Conor Oberst reworking that LP's ten solo acoustic tracks with full-band arrangements; on the other, it also contains seven new cuts, meaning that it functions as a stand-alone album, too.
Despite now having full-band arrangements (courtesy of New York's the Felice Brothers, plus journeyman drummer Jim Keltner), none of the songs sound radically different here than they did on Ruminations. The tasteful country rock performances are faithful to the melancholic tone of Oberst's songs, and the instrumentation (which includes accordion, fiddle and electric guitar) enhances rather distracts from the words and melodies. It's a beautiful balance between angst and elegant restraint.
The new tracks are peppered in amongst the previously released ones, and they further enhance the bittersweet tone. "Too Late to Fixate" is a striking portrait of marital unhappiness with a stark description of an encounter with a prostitute, while the overlapping group-sung refrains of "Overdue" make excellent use of the sonic richness of a full band. The closest thing to a curveball is "Napalm," a stomping roots-rocker with a 12-bar-style structure and a half-shouted vocal delivery.
Ultimately, the album's only weakness is that it essentially renders Ruminations redundant. As enjoyable as that album was, its barebones arrangements now sound simply like demos for the real thing. (This is unsurprising, since the solo performances were originally intended as demos.) With a total of 17 songs and a runtime of over an hour, Salutations is Oberst's most ambitious album since his 2002 Bright Eyes masterpiece Lifted, and the best instalment in his solo discography. (Nonesuch)