Conor Oberst's 2016 Ruminations seemed to offer a bone-chilling look at a broken man. He sounded alone, spiteful, sneering at mortality's necessary doom and pouring a drink out for the inherent impossibility of establishing a real connection with someone — anyone. It was a shocking enough shift from the bright and poetic work Oberst has been offering over the years through his various bands — Bright Eyes, Monsters of Folk and Desaparecidos — that longtime collaborator Mike Mogis was "worried" for his friend.
"I could hear how emotionally distraught Conor was," Mogis told Vulture in a September 2016 profile describing the headspace Oberst maintained while crafting that record, convalescing in his Omaha, Nebraska, home and weathering the emotional fallout from a devastating health scare and only recently resolved public scandal.
A year later, Oberst is back with a follow-up, Salutations. At its core, it's a more embellished version of Ruminations, translating the 10 stark, lonely tracks into full-band arrangements and adding seven more. Though the lyrics are nearly the same, the music is casual and warm, brimming with an optimism that's hard to square with their original versions. Yet this is always how Oberst wanted the world to hear them, and the only way they feel whole to him, as the indie veteran explained in a recent phone interview.
"The first record [Ruminations] kind of encapsulates the part of yourself where you're just completely in your own head, without any kind of assistance from anyone and anything. Salutations has friends involved, people involved," Oberst told Mic. "It's not that fun for me to hear just myself playing guitar. ... But that's just because I'm me I guess."
Arranged alongside legendary session drummer Jim Keltner and members of the Felice Brothers, Oberst's new arrangements sport a jangling, roots-rock feel, like a Bruce Springsteen drained of Americana pride, sporting track marks along his joints. "Gossamer Thin" splits the original ghostly piano line with an accordion, adding violins and loose harmonies to soften the song's devastating lyrics: "Like Delicate Arch, carved by the wind/ There's a glass psyche at stake/ Throw me a brick, see if it breaks."
"Counting Sheep," perhaps the darkest song on the original record, narrating the grisly deaths of two unnamed children, now comes buoyed by light harmonies and a chipper hi-hat pattern. The lyrics have changed as well. The two kids have names, and instead of hoping their ends were "slow" and "painful," as Oberst sang originally, he now says: "hope it was quick, hope it was peaceful."
It's easy to read into those lines as being a lynchpin of the new record's direction, but Oberst speaks about it lightly, as if it were a simple compromise rather than an aesthetic paradigm shift.
"Jim Keltner is such a sweet guy. He's like a good person," Oberst said of his collaborator, explaining the lyric. "He's like 74, and he's been around the block and believes in God and stuff. That line from the record was really dark for him and really upset him. He's like 'Man, is there anything else we could do? It's just so sad.' I switched it for him basically."
In a way, the changes incidentally provide an artful glimpse at how much collaborating and getting back out on the road has helped Oberst drag himself back to the light.
Similarly, "Tachycardia," Ruminations' opener and a track widely seen as a summation of the nightmare that drove Oberst back to Omaha, gets a new triumphant feel and smiling accordion embellishment. It appears near the middle of Salutations, an afterthought rather than a foundation.
This playful interplay between the bitter and the serene, a juxtaposition that Oberst describes as his one of his favorite aspects of songwriting, feels fitting at this stage in his career. He's passed through the fire and emerged whole.
His health scare — being told he had high blood pressure and a cyst on his brain — doesn't appear to be as serious as it did in 2015 when he discovered it after canceling his Desaparecidos tour. The false rape allegations originally leveled at him by a fan in an xoJane comment section and later retracted in a lengthy admission have continued to fade into the internet's back alleys.
Oberst looks at the songs written in this fallout with some distance. "It's like looking at an old photo." he said. "You can remember what was happening and what you were maybe feeling, but there's a layer of distance. I can get back to that spot usually, but obviously, time passes."
Describing his new commitment to self-care, Oberst is limiting his intake of the most toxic aspects of today's culture, namely the internet and Trump. "I honestly had to quit the news and TV and shit," he said. "It was debilitating."
In typical Oberst fashion, once he gets going on politics, he can't easily stop.
"The normalization of it is what drives me crazy," he said. "And I understand that's how democracy works — he got elected, so we have to call him president. So yes, Trump — " he stops for a second, as if he can't force the words out. "It's uncomfortable to even say. But Trump is my president, and it just happens to be the most terrifying, embarrassing, horrible thing that I think has ever gone down in American history. I mean, I wasn't around in the 19th century, but it's pretty weird that they let a maniac, celebrity TV star be president."
Political writing has always been a fundamental part of Oberst's artistic identity, from Bright Eyes' heart-stopping indictment of Bush on "The President Talks to God" and the cartoonish satire of the Desaparecidos' Clash-like punk. However, the sneering visionary not ready to approach this president with the same spears brandished.
"The whole essence of satirical writing, whether it's music or Mark Twain, is to take what's there that you're trying to expose and exaggerate it so people get how ridiculous it is," he said. "But how do you exaggerate a guy that talks about grabbing pussy when he's running for president? How do you exaggerate a guy who won't release his tax returns and puts his children and son-in-law in positions of power and who has a self-proclaimed white supremacist fake-news tycoon as his adviser?" — his latter question referring to White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.
Oberst stops himself again and takes a breath.
"This is what happens when I start talking about this stuff. My heart rate goes up, and it really affects me," he said.
"The Ballad of the Orange Rat" or a similar take isn't off the table, he concludes, but it doesn't feel right at the moment.
"I'm really beside myself when it comes to what's happening in our reality right now," he said. "So yeah, I'm just gonna play my songs. Get to the next city. Try to be nice to everyone I meet. That's all we got left, because some of this stuff is way above my pay grade. You can either torture yourself by obsessing over it, or do what you can to put some good vibes back into the world."
Mic has ongoing music coverage. Follow our main music hub here.