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.