Nick Bollinger discusses a stark solo set - and it's more colourful companion - from Conor Oberst.
Conor Oberst, the Nebraska-born singer-songwriter, has recorded prolifically under a range of guises – Commander Venus, Monsters Of Folk, The Mystic Valley Band, and most popularly as Bright Eyes. But it seemed significant that last year’s Ruminations album came out simply under his own name, after all there was no one else on it.
This stark solo set followed what anyone might consider to be a testing time for Oberst. Having been through accusations of rape (a claim that was eventually withdrawn) he experienced a number of health issues, winding up for a time in hospital. And the songs on Ruminations, written during this period and recorded over an Omaha winter, reflect both obliquely and directly on the subjects of sickness, betrayal and fall from grace.
Though professionally recorded, Ruminations is raw and not exactly an easy listen. In fact, it wasn’t originally intended to be an album at all, but rather demos for a more full-bodied recording, which is essentially what Oberst has now gone and done.
Clearly a companion piece to Ruminations, his latest set – arriving only a few months after its predecessor – is called Salutations. And it presents all ten of the songs from Ruminations in fully-accompanied versions.
It’s not that Oberst has moved all that far from the solo singer-songwriter mode of the earlier album. But the arrangements have been fleshed out into something resembling classic Californian folk-rock, creating a mellow bed for his agitated vocals.
In addition to the ten songs already heard last year, Oberst has added a further seven, following similar themes. In fact the album kicks off with one of these, giving the initial impression that the collection is going be a little more different than it actually turns out to be. It’s typical Oberst: his acute self-absorption offset by his winning wit and way with words.
A fair bit of credit for the sophisticated sound of these additions and remakes goes to drummer Jim Keltner - veteran of sessions with every major singer-songwriter from John Lennon to Bob Dylan - who not only plays on but also co-produced the album with Oberst. Lennon and Dylan have always been audible influences on Oberst’s writing; he’s in a genre where they are pretty much impossible to ignore. And if the starkness of Ruminations consciously recalled Lennon’s monumental Plastic Ono Band, here it’s the Dylanisms that come to the fore, from Oberst’s phrasing to his harmonica playing.
It almost goes without saying that Oberst, now 37, doesn’t have the songwriting range of a Dylan or Lennon, and if he did we’d surely have seen it by now. Melodically he’s even more of a recycler than Bob. But something he is great at is the way he moves almost imperceptibly between the inner and outer world, capturing both in beautifully compressed detail. He may be deep in his own existential crisis, but it doesn’t stop him from remembering Gaugin’s breadfruit trees, or the eyes of the naturalist philosopher John Muir.
And though he might often seem to be fixating on his own plight – which could legitimately be filed under first world problems – his songs usually have bigger, more universal resonances. On Salutations, the song he calls ‘You All Loved Him Once’ sounded like a cry of self-pity, yet listening to this new version, in the wake of the US election, I can only hear it as a farewell to Obama. It’s a clever enough song to be both.
Ruminations and Salutations, though sharing much material, are quite different albums; both good, but neither quite perfect. The former, at a concise 37-minutes, could make you feel claustrophobic, while the latter, at almost twice that length, at times seems rambling and diffuse. The solution might ultimately be to mix and match between the two. In an age where playlists are supplanting albums, that should be entirely possible; there may be an even better album there.
Ruminations and Salutations are available on Nonesuch.