Album Review: Better Oblivion Community Center - Better Oblivion Community Center
The partnership of Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers as Better Oblivion Community Center is somewhat surprising, despite the obvious stepping stones that have got us here. Oberst and Bridgers have featured on a couple of each other’s songs in the past, but the idea of forming a whole new band seems an odd one. On the one hand Conor Oberst has over two decades of material behind him and still maintains a passionate fanbase; he’s not desperately in need of a new angle to re-position himself in the limelight. On the other hand, Bridgers is still riding high off the back of Stranger In The Alps and especially last year’s boygenius EP, and is on the rise with or without Oberst’s help. So why make Better Oblivion Community Center?
The answer is obvious as soon as you start playing opening track (and first written) ‘Didn’t Know What I Was In For’: the two have a natural chemistry, and frequently bring out the best in each other. Sonically, ‘Didn’t Know What I Was In For’ doesn’t stray too far from the comfort zones of either, it being a slow-rocking folk number, but intertwining their different narratives works incredibly well – and this is just the starting point.
The rest of Better Oblivion Community Center sees them continuing to bounce off each other, with Oberst sounding more carefree and rejuvenated than he has for a couple of albums, and Bridgers audibly buoyed by the support of this seasoned songwriter. In the early Bright Eyes years Oberst wrote as if everything was a matter of life and death, and while he doesn’t return to the histrionics of those albums on Better Oblvion, there is a do-or-die resplendence to many of the best tracks that seems to have been re-discovered by working with a youthful partner.
Chief among these is the irresistible pop rocker ‘Dylan Thomas’, named after the Welsh poet who died at 39, that features the gleefully sung chorus “I’m getting greedy with this private hell/ I'll go it alone, but that's just as well”; a simple rhyme with enough vague emphasis for everyone to sing along to it and adapt it to their own personal strife. This has been Oberst’s calling card for a long time, and on Better Oblivion he and Bridgers have created a host of great fist-pumping, “they’re singing about me!” choruses.
You can tell that ‘Sleepwalkin’’ probably came from just messing around, its speed-up-slow-down gait seeming like a throwaway idea, but the duo are committed, loading it with the chorus of “Is this having fun? It's not like the way it was/ I thought that you loved this stuff, or did I make that up?,” the frivolous melodrama working magically. And while ‘Exception to the Rule’ sounds pretty much like a drawn-over photocopy of a song from Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash In A Digital Urn, it’s freshened by the intertwining voices, and the vague-but-pointed chorus “There's always an exception to the rule/ Why don't you want it?” once more hitting the sweet spot of universal relatability.
There’s also an undoubted awe of nature and life’s surprises to be found on Better Oblivion, often wrapped up in delicate acoustic-led ballads. While these tracks all follow a similar pattern, with a slow-burning narrative leading to a fuzzed-out finale, the formula remains potent. This is due to the combination of the pair’s voices working so well, and the characters that populate the songs being just specific enough to make the worlds inhabitable. Whether it’s Conor’s beggar “with a pile of filthy coins asking strangers to forgive him” in ‘Service Road’, or Bridgers' seemingly autobiographical stoner who gets “edgy on dark streets” in ‘Dominos’, there is a truth and heart that grabs you. It helps that they consistently use welcoming instrumentation with no shortage of simply singable hooks.
Comparing Better Oblivion Community Center to the pair’s past projects might seem facile, it does help see how this project works. It’s certainly better than Oberst’s Mystic Valley Band, where the other songwriters were nowhere near his league, and it easily beats Monsters of Folk where it seemed he, M. Ward and Jim James were only in the studio to appease fans. For Bridgers, Better Oblivion Community Center isn't as meaningful as her work alongside her two contemporaries in boygenius, but it does show some new dimensions and a continued boost in confidence. In Better Oblivion Community Center, Oberst and Bridgers have made a true collaboration, finding a middle ground between their experiences and styles that is truly fertile. All of this is to say that the surprise of Better Oblivion Community Center may only comprise a few genuine surprises, but even what’s predictable about it is utterly lovable and well worth your time.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 29th January 2019.