CD: Conor Oberst - Salutations. The re-recording of his magnum opus is more mellow - but is it as go

From The Arts Desk

Conor Oberst's 2016 LP, Ruminations, was seen by many as both a triumph and milestone. A triumph because of the acclaim it attracted; and a milestone because it finally packed the emotional punch the singer-songwriter had been promising for years. The album was recorded in Nebraska during a particularly dark period in the artist's life - the combination of a brain cyst and a false accusation of rape. Armed with just a piano and a guitar, he compressed his emotions into a state of almost exquisite angst. Now, he's recorded the songs all over again.

Salutations is, apparently, how Oberst originally conceived the album, before deciding to release the demos. This time around we have new versions of the original 10 songs along with a further seven new compositions. Joining him are The Felice Brother, Gillian Welch, as well as various old bandmates. Unsurprisingly their presence makes everything fuller and warmer. Indeed Salutations is often like hearing an original after first experiencing the bootleg. Here's the thing, though: bootlegs are often better. Ruminations worked so well because its unvarnished sparseness perfectly expressed Oberst's psychological malaise. Salutations, on the other hand, often sounds as laid-back as Rick Rubin's Malibu studio where it was recorded.

Take "Tachycardia". The version on Ruminations feels like walking into a practice room and hearing a man crying into his piano. On Salutations the song is recast as wistful country-rock. Similarly, "Next of Kin", originally a painful examination of emotional death, is now merely sad and reflective. It's the same story throughout. Not that these new versions aren't, in themselves, rich and full of the flavours of the Midwest. But the arrangements rarely match the emotional exhaustion of the words. In fact, only on one track do words and music really come together, and it's one of the new ones. The quick-fire anarchic punk-folk of "Napalm" is the most rocking number here. And probably the best.

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