SALUTATIONS by Conor Oberst


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Genre: Singer/Songwriter

Favorite Tracks: “Gossamer Thin,” “Afterthought,” “Til St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out,” “Tachycardia,” “A Little Uncanny,” “Salutations”

It was quite a startling revelation to learn that one of my favorite albums of last year wasn’t even supposed to exist. RUMINATIONS was one of the most raw and intimate albums I’d heard in awhile, a harrowing look into a young man who felt very, very old, and the lo-fi recording and the sparse production was a huge part of that. However, it turns out that the 10 tracks on it were merely demos that Conor subsequently released as their own album at the behest of others. SALUTATIONS features all 10 of those tracks as well as seven new ones.

I was worried that the songs on RUMINATIONS only worked because they were so bare-bones, losing all emotional impact if tinkered with too much. Similarly, this is an hour-long album, and while Conor has a pretty impressive work ethic, this seemed way too ambitious for him. It is more embellished, and unnecessarily so at times, but the extra instrumentation doesn’t diminish how vivid and emotional Conor is as a songwriter.


Given that you’ve probably heard half of these tracks before or one of his many solo albums or other projects, Conor’s melancholic, bitter songwriting style should come as no surprise. His songs are full of allusions to historical figures; such a thing could be seen as masturbatory and rubbing how well-read he is in your face, but in Conor’s deft hands they become huge influences who he invokes in reference to his rough life. A reference to the new progressive pope on “Gossamer Thin” becomes a symbol for becoming more hedonistic but still not fully embracing what others see as a sinful life, while “Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)” is a meditation on the fragility of legacy and the dangers of success, using a story of Frank Lloyd Wright rebuilding one of his damaged houses.


A heavy dose of darkly humorous disillusionment runs through the lyrics as well, whether it be by acknowledging the lack of true innocence in war on “Napalm” (Let’s hold a vigil / For the kinda, sorta innocent) or the crippling cycle of addiction furthered by surrounding yourself with fellow addicts (Let’s get enabled / Great minds, they think alike / I never was a good judge of when to call it a night). Conor needs to build a wall of irony and sardonic snarkiness to avoid dealing with what he sees as a deeply flawed and unforgiving world. Seeing him almost break through the wall, only to quickly flee in terror into resigned surrender, is a fascinating and sad experience every time.


Conor has done away with the raw and minimal instrumentation that made RUMINATIONS an enjoyable contrast from the rest of his work. He has re-introduced a backing band with violins, simple drums, and background vocalists to his instrumental palette, along with a more layered mix and prominent overdubbing. The fact that there’s so much more post-production and recording time makes the whole thing sound too arranged and smooth, removing how spontaneous and from-the-heart RUMINATIONS felt. However, the more expanded songs allow for less structural monotony, and old tracks like “Tacharydia” benefit from having more dynamism, and therefore more dramatic weight, to them.


Some of the new songs are hampered by misplaced slickness, especially the late ‘90s, Third Eye Blind guitar lick on “Anytime Soon” and the country twang of “Naplam.” With the exception of the powerful chorus of “Afterthought,” the background vocals and duets don’t detract nor endear; Conor’s shaky voice is powerful enough to not warrant anything added to it. Perhaps my opinion would be switched if I had heard this record first, and it’s not as if Conor can’t arrange and compose a song well, but listening to RUMINATIONS first shows how unnecessary the musical additions are.

SALUTATIONS proves to me why Oberst has lasted this long, weaving his way through so many different genres and musical acts. No matter what instrument he has in his hand, his songwriting can carry him, even if he can’t play that instrument especially well. As bloated as SALUTATIONS can be in length and instrumentation, it is less annoying and more redundant, and Conor has fleshed out himself and his worldview so well over his career that he makes anything besides his words feel unnecessary to me. It’s not a path that opens to many folk singers, but similar to Bob Dylan, Conor has become a literary figure as well as a musical one. As long as he has a story to tell and knows how to turns a phrase well, I don’t care whether he records in his log cabin in the snow or in a studio; I will still want to listen to it.

Verdict: Recommend

Unqualified, unfiltered, unbiased, but not uninspired reviewer of whatever these people tell me to review.

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