Bridgers, Oberst gel on ‘Better Oblivion Community Center’
Matthew Kellenberg | Wednesday, January 30, 2019
Things are looking up for Phoebe Bridgers. In 2017, she released her debut album, “Strangers in the Alps,” to critical acclaim. A year later, her collaboration with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, “boygenius,” received album-of-the-year buzz. Also in this time, Bridgers joined indie darling and former Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst on his “Salutations” European tour. Now, Bridgers and Oberst have come out with a new album — a surprise release — under the moniker Better Oblivion Community Center (also the record’s title). Yet their new album is not a testament to Bridgers’ exponential rise or her and Oberst’s exciting new partnership. It’s a punishingly sad record, the output of two artists at the height of depicting lowness.
“Didn’t Know What I Was in For” kicks off the record with austere acoustic accompaniment and Bridgers alone on vocals. At the minute mark, Oberst chimes in for a biting chorus about charity runs. “There’s no way I’m curing cancer,” the duo sings, “But I’ll sweat it out / I feel so proud now for all the good I’ve done.” Oberst sounds sarcastic, but Bridgers sounds sincere. Does this song accept the absurd or mock those who do? The ambiguity, and its skin-crawling effect, exemplifies the unique capability of the Oberst-Bridgers duo.
Third on the album is “Dylan Thomas,” an ode to the Welsh poet behind “Do not go gentle into that good night.” And go gentle, Oberst and Bridgers do not. The track’s electric guitars buzz anthemically, and its lyrics are confrontational and unforgiving: “These talking heads are saying / ‘The king is only playing / A game of four-dimensional chess.’” Yet the duo’s fatalistic moments are less-than-inspiring. Romanticizing Thomas’ departure — “I’ll die like Dylan Thomas / A seizure on the barroom floor” — the duo twists the poet’s legacy into a romanticization not of escaping circumstance, but rather of dramatic surrender.
From there, the album progresses rather heterogeneously. Catchy, synth-driven backing on “Exception to the Rule” contrasts gradual, acoustic instrumentation on “Chesapeake.” “My City” and “Forest Lawn” both speak to heartache, but with conflicting urban and rural settings. “Big Black Heart” builds up to a blazing punk-rock conclusion; “Dominos” veers more twee, accompanying the line “Coming home, I feel my heart beat” with the sound of a heartbeat. Each track is, in itself, beautiful, yet the record as a whole does not feel more than the sum of its parts.
That criticism, though, is no justification to call “Better Oblivion Community Center” anything less than a very good album. Though thematically varied, the lyrics on this record are consistently witty and heartrending. The record’s instrumentation pushes boundaries for the duo but still plays to each artist’s strengths — Oberst’s acoustic cuts, Bridgers’ hazy production, etc. Furthermore, Oberst and Bridgers are a perfect pair — especially in its finer moments, the record gives the sense of twin souls colliding. One can only hope they collide again sometime soon.
Artist: Better Oblivion Community Center (Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst)
Album: “Better Oblivion Community Center”
Label: Dead Oceans
Favorite Track: “Dylan Thomas”
If you like: Bright Eyes, boygenius, Elliott Smith
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5