Conor Oberst’s follow-on from 2016’s Ruminations fails to justify its raison d’être. The re-recordings of that album’s songs as well as the new material here exists in the shadow of its predecessor.
|Artist: Conor Oberst
Album Title: Salutations
Genre: Indie Folk / Americana / Alt-Country
It’s a real shame that the first album I get to review by Conor Oberst happens to be potentially his worst ever. It’s still a pretty high bar to be honest, but unfortunately for fans like me Salutations languishes at the back of the race with 2009’s Outer South, credited to Conor and the Mystic Valley Band. One of the reasons I think both of these albums are poorer than the rest of the Oberst oeuvre is because of their hodgepodge nature, more like compilations than well-crafted, thematic records. They’re updates on A Collection of Song Written and Recorded 1995-1997, or Noise Floor (Rarities: 1998–2005), just disguised as studio albums.
Outer South was essentially a collection of songs the band wrote on tour and then expediently recorded as soon as they got back to the studio. Like Salutations it was a bit of a rush job, with minimal-to-no production value or sheen. The consequence with both records, but particularly Salutations, is that the songs don’t achieve the organic quality they strive for, instead sounding undercooked and left wanting of the essential mood and feel the nature of the songs dictate.
In the midst of a post-breakdown malaise, Conor wrote this new batch of material stowed away in his Omaha residence. The idea was allegedly to always make a full band record, but the first full LP that came out of these sessions was 2016’s Ruminations, a ten track long solo effort comprised of nothing more than Conor’s voice, guitar playing or piano, and accompanying harmonica. I doubt there’s more than 4 tracks layered on any given song. The stripped back songs laid the artist behind them bare, and the raw, harrowing sentiment came gushing through making it easy to sympathise and to get engulfed in the swathes of misery Conor has perfected throughout his career.
The reason Ruminations was such a good album was in part due to the coherence of the song writing and the tonal consistence from start to finish, but also because of long term collaborator Mike Mogis’ wizardry behind the mixing desk. It’s an incredibly difficult skill to make such a bare bones project sound extremely full and emotive, the archetypal example being Springsteen’s Nebraska. It was natural to be trepidatious about Salutations as all the songs on Ruminations were set to be re-recorded with the full band, which had the potential to change the way we view the original and potentially reduce its power.
In some ways both of these things happened. Salutations had to succeed on two fronts to justify its existence; firstly it needed to offer great alternative versions to the original tracks and secondly the additional songs (seven of them) needed to be good enough additions to justify their inclusion. For the most part, we need to put a red cross against both these points. Of the ten songs that have been re-recorded there’s only one that I actually prefer, ‘A Little Uncanny’ towards the back end of the track list, which undoubtedly sounds better with more instruments as it’s one of the only rock songs here. For the most part the addition of all those violins, organs, accordions, and wurlitzers, all extremely alt-country and orchestrated by country band The Felice Brothers, fits horribly with Oberst’s melodies, besmirching songs which had stood up assuredly before. It’s surprising how jarring Oberst’s music becomes when he goes for Roots Folk and Americana.
Of the new songs here the worthiest additions are ‘Too Late to Fixate’ and ‘Napalm’. The former track is a classic Oberst song template elevated by a cleverly wound tale of marital issues, mental health problems, disconnection evinced through escort fishing, and drug dependence. ‘Napalm’ is one of the rare moments where the chosen instrumentation makes sense, with the organ leads in the verses proving surprisingly catchy. It’s a cool centrepiece.
Ultimately, however, the production style exposes Oberst’s vocal weaknesses. Contrary to popular belief the man isn’t actually a bad singer and has a solely idiosyncratic cadence, but the quality of his presentation is sometimes only as good as the people pulling the production strings. You just don’t believe the (very direct and emotional) words Conor is singing on this album in the way you did on Ruminations. Beforehand you really felt how tired and world weary he was in his delivery, worrying a bit for his health. It was probably somewhere between truth and artifice, but on Salutations it just comes across as bad, wooden acting.
It’s an album which will be considered a footnote in the Oberst oeuvre, but at least we’ll always have Ruminations, the album that the quality of these songs deserved. It stands as a testament to the fact that Oberst is always best deployed when crafting the concise, homogenous albums that mark the best work of his career.