Album Review: Better Oblivion Community Center — ‘Better Oblivion Community Center’

Posted: by The Editor

After a month of wild speculation, creepy brochures, and ominous voicemail recordings Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers have officially announced their new supergroup, Better Oblivion Community Center. Their self-titled debut is arguably the finest work to date from either Oberst or Bridgers, and yet another coveted work that they can each add to their respective belts (not that they need one). Both of them are such eloquent songwriters, they seem to pop beautiful songs out as frequently as Oberst screams “GOD DAMN!” on I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning.

Oddly specific jokes aside, the duo is buzzing with press right now. Some are referring to Bridgers a “meme lord”, completely ignoring the unbelievable career she has built for herself at merely 24 years old. Only a year younger than Oberst when he released his 5th studio album with Bright Eyes, many find it difficult to understand the scope of her success. Unlike many other musicians, Bridgers’ grind and ambition has helped her music reach an audience of millions in an extremely short amount of time. Her talent, wit, and work ethic have allowed her to open doors within an impossible industry.

After a whirlwind of playing anything she could—landing an Apple commercial, stunting an exuberant punk band, and even working with Ryan Adams, she finally landed a gig opening for a surprise Conor Oberst show. Oberst, like many of us, was soon inebriated by her delicate yet razor sharp aesthetic. Soon she was recording her debut album Stranger In The Alps at Mike Mogis’ studio in Omaha.

Fans of Oberst may recall seeing Bridgers open for him on various tours throughout 2016 and early 2017, often playing duets together intermittently. The first time I saw her, I knew there was something inherently special. She was sporting a black glittery jumpsuit, paired with a sparkly black electric guitar. I sat on the edge of my seat on that gloomy, Los Angeles night. She told the crowd about how honored she was to share the stage with Oberst, how she had grown up playing Bright Eyes covers in coffee shops trying to get noticed. Ending her set with a Bright Eyes deep cut (“Bad Blood”) she had everyone enamored. Coming back to the stage later in the evening, the two preformed “Lua” together. It was one of the most well balanced duos I had ever heard and only a mere taste of what was to come.

After Bridgers released her debut album, many fans were surprised to find a track featuring Oberst, and delighted when he joined along the tour for a bit, singing his part of “Would You Rather” each night. When rumors started pouring in that the two were working together, it wasn’t a complete surprise. However, the surprise drop of this new supergroup sent a shockwave throughout the music industry, especially considering how busy both artists have been, with Bridgers other supergroup Boygenius releasing their EP and Oberst with a pair of new singles in the past couple of months.

They kept it a secret and wanted to surprise listeners with how the group would sound. Bridgers stated, “I didn’t want anybody to hear that we had a project and know both of our music and make an assumption about what it sounded like”. While the album sounds very true to them individually, it also stands alone as something unique. The two play off of each other’s strengths to create vivid stories with impactful harmonies in insightful ways.

With each listen, there’s something new—a new favorite track, a new storyline introduced, little nuggets of treasure are hidden in every crack and crevice of this record. While some tracks feel heavily inspired by either Bridgers or Oberst, others feel like a harmonious balance of influence between the two.

Opening track, “Didn’t Know What I Was in For” is a great example of how easily the creative minds of both songwriters can melt into a beautiful masterpiece. Not overtly political, the track gives a sneakily wrapped “fuck you” to a culture that breeds us into not actually caring about the wellbeing of other and how the world around us is reflective of the choices we make individually. The striking imagery of taking a picture of a homeless man on the street and not actually helping him. Or someone who’s crying over the news, but making a career off profiting from others. We’re all living plastic lives, being pawns in our own game, thinking selfish actions are actually selfless. It’s truly a talent to be able to wrap such a hard-hitting narrative into a beautifully packaged radio hit, but that’s what these two specialize in.

“Dylan Thomas” is another example of the intense storytelling the two tell over poppy riffs and upbeat snare hits. Oberst is no stranger in making his music political, seen especially in his punk band Desaparecidos, he is not afraid to stir the pot. Bridgers, also from a raucous background, is able to match this energy but put her own spin on it. The chorus rings, “I’m getting greedy with this private hell / I could go it alone but that’s just as well”. Leaving their folky roots but still remaining true to themselves, the pair strikes a seemingly lighthearted balance while still creating an ominous story.

Moving away from politics, “Exception to the Rule” is smack dab in the middle of the album and a clear standout. This track checks off all the boxes, I would absolutely recommend it to any fan of old school Bright Eyes. It hits a special part of my brain that lights a reaction I haven’t got from Oberst’s past few solo albums. While the electronic feel may be off-putting for some, it gives off such a strong Digital Ash vibe that it feels like an extremely special and purposeful gift for dedicated listeners. It’s different, it shakes things up, and it breaks up the album in a way one wouldn’t normally expect.

As the album progresses it takes a small step back, slowing down just a bit, placing the duo on a teetering pedestal. Their voices navigate tight strings of sound that intersect and collide intermittently. What’s so special about these songs in particular is how there is something for every type of fan. There are rich narratives and instrumentals for those who really want to dig in, but then there are striking one liners for those passively listening, still leaving just enough of an impact. This is seen especially in tracks like “My City” and “Chesapeake” with the delicate imagery hidden throughout but hard-hitting lines like, “chasing love like an ambulance”. No matter the medium, each track leaves a distinct impression, as well as lyrics that get stuck in your head for days.

Closing track, “Dominos” feels heavily inspired by Oberst. With a lo-fi voice recording creating an eerie tone, it’s very reminiscent of that old school feeling the two cleverly put into everything they do. As it progresses, Bridgers slowly inserts herself, until the two burst into a bit of call and response not seen on the rest of the record. Since the two wanted to stay away from doing a typical duet album, this is the only true track where the listener really gets that back and forth feeling. While it’s not the strongest track on the album, it still ends the record leaving the listeners wanting more. An endless loop, to be played again and again, to find something else hidden within the complexities.

While Oberst has suffered a grueling past few years, things have been looking up and his hopeful spirit is on full display with Better Oblivion Community Center. In 2014, a false rape accusation almost ruined his career. Shortly after that, a brain cyst forced the musician to cancel several tours, upsetting fans that were already losing faith in him. A year after that, his brother passed away and he was forced to make some extremely difficult self reflections.

However, this album is a treasure to all the die hard Oberst fans who’ve stuck with him through everything. An ode to those who rode every musical and personal wave he surfed. His music has surpassed what many deem as merely a soundtrack for depressed high schoolers, and this album seems to be his magnum opus. Despite the fact that he’s been releasing almost an album a year since he first began music in the early 90’s (sometimes more), many continue to stick him inside a box of nostalgia. Throughout his long and storied career he has created uplifting ballads, punk anthems, two folk supergroups, and continues to cross musical boundaries. Critics and listeners alike are finally taking notice and giving Oberst the respect he deserves. Conor Oberst makes music for the people and if the people happen to be kids crying to “A Perfect Sonnet” then so be it. Bridgers doesn’t just match Oberst’s energy, she has created an entirely new standard for contemporary songwriters, and the duo is set to crash the industry this year.

Disappointing / Average / Good/ Great / Phenomenal

Emily Kitchin | @deathnap4cutie

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