Album Review

Conor Oberst: Salutations and the Setting Self

Conor Oberst - Salutations

Rereleasing material can be a tricky business, as an original recording often creates an indelible impression on a listener, making it difficult for a new “take” to be received with fresh ears. Usually the motivation for a rerelease is to offer an alternate angle, to display some aspect of a song that may not have been as apparent in the original (consider Springsteen’s “Ghost of Tom Joad” both with and without Tom Morello), much as might be the case when one artist covers another’s artist’s song (think Hendrix’s cover of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” or Elliott Smith's cover of Big Star's "Thirteen"). Whether a song is rereleased by the same artist, or covered by a different artist, new versions can oftentimes be an improvement on the original or serve as intriguing supplementary material. Other times, not so much.

With his new release, Salutations, Conor Oberst has taken the ten songs from his 2016 release, Ruminations (tracks limited to piano or guitar accompanying a single vocal), added seven additional tracks, and released an album of material fully accompanied by guitars, percussion, and other instruments. With a lyricist as adept as Oberst, who also possesses a uniquely evocative voice, a stripped-down album such as Ruminations is something to celebrate, all the more so as in recent years Oberst has grown more discerning with his natural intensity, developing an appreciation for nuance and focusing on lyrical and vocal subtleties more so than on earlier recordings.

Which is to say: starting perhaps with The People’s Key (2011), a listener encounters a generally more plaintive and subdued Oberst, a maturing artist who is drawing inspiration from restraint rather than or at least as much as catharsis. And while the naked songs on Ruminations mark a significant accomplishment, his enhancements on Salutations work equally well. His voice remains predominant, the mix allowing for inflections and tonal explorations. The instrumentation serves as an effective dressing and delivery for the tunes, adding substance and dimensionality but never crowding Oberst’s melodies or lyrics.

Ageing in the arts can be an unforgiving process. How to evolve in such a way that one’s early and perhaps inherent gifts are still mined but not utilized as crutches? Qualities that were major sources of inspiration and stylistic signatures when an artist was twenty or twenty-five can become caricatural when that artist is thirty or thirty-five. At some point, adolescent angst and self-loathing become a tough sell. Ryan Adams’s melancholic tone and tragic orientation, for example, were riveting on several albums, most notably Love Is Hell and 29, but ring as slightly farcical with later releases, including some of the tracks on his recent Prisoner.

The good news is that Oberst is ageing or maturing well, in better form than many of his contemporaries. Artists such as Oberst, for whom childhood trauma, heartbreak, dissociation, and relational dysfunction are primary sources, at least aesthetically, have to find a way, as they age, to mine alternate themes and experiences. The problem is existential as much as artistic. To make a literary comparison, singer/songwriters such as Oberst are most directly tied to the Confessionalists, poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Was it Dr. Evil in one of the Austin Powers movies who said, “There’s nothing worse than an ageing hipster”? I might suggest that an ageing Confessionalist can be a pretty iffy character too.

Oberst, however, seems to be drawing from current experiences and cultivating new forms of expression rather than refurbishing tried-and-true tropes, themes, and imagery. He’s finding new ways to navigate new perplexities and realizations. This bodes well, as nothing portends longevity and continued relevance more than sustained curiosity; i.e., even though Salutations includes alternate takes of earlier tunes, the album occurs as fresh. Oberst adopted this approach, it seems, not because he ran out of material but was still determined to release a new album, but rather because he felt these songs had additional potential and could, as Ezra Pound would suggest, be “made new.”

The creative process is often discussed reductively or sentimentally but is a complex psycho-circumstantial phenomenon founded on the abeyance of knowing, a willingness to remain attuned to what is pressing though agonizingly ontic and elusive, a perennial mystery that one may never fully plumb but would (and probably will!) spend a lifetime attempting to express. Creativity constitutes surrender to the muse, poetically speaking, a surrender which may result in laurel, but may just as well result in one being dragged across the proverbial rocks, starving and aphasic. In this way, the creative process is more often than not energetically enlivening but egoically destabilizing. For artists such as Oberst, to relinquish one’s self-perception as a tragic figure, an outsider, the irredeemable one, constitutes a Kierkegaardian leap and fundamental artistic risk; and yet, such a shift seems requisite, if the art is to remain vital. In the end, one chooses between art and ego, flux and fixation. The less recognizable Oberst is to himself, the more eloquently he reveals himself as a creator.

I support recycling paper, aluminum cans and glass. I don't support artists (re)selling their music to their fans a second time.

More a wordy, self-conscious, name-dropping, pretentious essay than a review of an actual album.

By my reckoning it has something to do with the maturation of the creative process and how some wear it well (e.g., Conor Oberst) and others (e.g., Ryan Adams) not so much. 

Actually, I thought it was a good review and it's refreshing to read someone write about music in larger aesthetic and cultural terms rather than simply comparing music to music.  As a writer myself, I know that that can be really boring.  It's a rather good piece of writing, and personally I'm ok with references to Sylvia Plath and Kierkegaardian leaps of faith.  Pop is eating itself enough already.  Broader points of reference can only be a good thing.

I suppose it depends on what you expect a review to be...I like the last paragraph especially, which describes the creative process well...why it is so difficult to get to something good...Jackson Browne once described songwriting as "a way of excavating your understanding.  It's a way of talking about what matters, and eventually you can see what it is that's coming up".  You may start off not knowing what you are writing about...but you figure it out as you go...

As for reviews, they are still opinion pieces...I personally agree with the reviewer about Ryan Adams...while I like "Prisoner" pretty well, lyrically the themes are not what I liked about the earlier Ryan Adams, or perhaps they are the same but seem to be less 'authentic" at this point ...I was thinking he'd regressed lyrically rather than failed to ripen well over time...I do think the record grows on you some as you listen...but the reviewer mentions comparative records "Love Is Hell" and "29" as being examples of his melancholy and self loathing being very effective, whereas later on "Prisoner" it's a tougher that end, I'd say that I recently saw an article (in Paste I believe) where a reviewer ranked Ryan's 16 solo albums from best to worst..."Love Is Hell" was indeed very high on the list (Heartbreaker, his first solo record, was #1), but "29", whom Mr. Amen (great last name) places in the same category, was at the very bottom, 16th out of 16...I'd rather read this piece than the list's strikes me as being pretty well thought out...just me.  As for the artist selling his record in two formats, it doesn't bother me much...with the old music business model you could cynically say the record company is trying to sell me the same thing they already sold me as a money grab...given the current state or model of the "music business", if an artist is doing two versions, that comes at a cost...Conor is not selling like Ed Sheeran...I doubt there's much financial gain to be had there...some folks will want it though...

This reads like a bad college term paper. Find a reviewer who can tell us what this record sounds like please.

Me? I just came here to rag on a reviewer who wrote something he probably didn't get paid to write and I didn't pay to read!