Music Review: Salutations
Ah, Salutations. It would be an oversimplification to call this album a re-tread of Conor Oberst's Ruminations (review here). Yet, the ten tracks that make up Ruminations appear here in full band form re-ordered and surrounded by new material. It makes the album as a whole hard to review because of the familiarity with the stripped down variants that were so poignant. A review has to address the relation between the albums as unfair as that might be.
The album's opener, "Too Late to Fixate," provides a smooth, calm introduction to the emotional depths of Oberst's current work. The song is deceptively dark and paves the way for the painful tracks of the album. "Gossamer Thin" is the first Ruminations track to appear on the record. It neither steps up or falls back in comparison (a "criticism" of most of the re-treads). The band does more to shield the dark nature of the lyrics more than anything else.
"Overdue" and "Afterthought," additional new tracks, meander between classic Oberst and lazy arrangement. Both are enjoyable tracks but do not omit the feeling of the re-treads. "Next of Kin" comes in with a tame re-arrangement that certainly fills out Oberst's crooning without actually adding or re-directing the original stripped version.
"Napalm" is the first of the new tracks to set the album on fire. The lyrical allusions are intense and rapid. The band and Oberst's voice are pitch perfect in their messiness. "Mamah Borthwick (A Sketch)" remains one of my favorite tracks on Ruminations. In contrast to the original crisp acoustic guitar, Salutations has the backing of a deep echoing and brooding band (the guitar now has a mild crisp distortion). The track is the standout gem that surpasses the re-treads and is one of my all-time favorite Oberst songs.
"Barbary Coast (Later)" comes close to surpassing the original rendition. "Tachycardia" unfairly loses its personality without the piano (wouldn't even know if the original didn't exist). "Empty Hotel by the Sea" and "Anytime Soon" provide a generic and catchy Oberst who has clearly perfected his writing. "Counting Sheep" and "Rain Follows the Plow" are the first re-treads that noticeably decline in quality from their original stripped versions—the removal of the piano in the later once again proves to be a mistake. "You All Loved Him Once" and "A Little Uncanny" re-treads bring the volume back and provide an upbeat Oberst that hasn't lost what the stripped versions contain.
The final track "Salutations" is a perfect example of the album as a whole. Reflective, dark, and a band backing that provides depth. But none of the cutting elements of Oberst survive aside from his lyrics. As a whole, Salutations comes off too clean and neat. Oberst has perfected his songwriting and producing, but the entire album seems too easy to consume.
Most of this criticism is levied from the adoration of the original material stripped and emotionally bare. Salutations would be a great album in its own right. But it comes on the heels of the vastly superior Ruminations. Both can be enjoyed. Only one can be savored.