The indie-rock collaboration record ‘Better Oblivion Community Center’ caught many off-guard this January, exploding into life without any hype or build. The contributing artists, Phoebe Bridgers and Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, elected to keep their project a secret right up until release, perhaps hoping to nullify the would-be expectations of fans.
This is not as out of the ordinary as you might expect, as Bridgers has proved to be a bit of a nomad since the release of her debut album in September of 2017, spending the time immediately after recording the ‘boygenius’ project with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. Oberst too has had more than his fair share of concurrent projects over his 25 year career, so the more you look at it, the more this looks like it was destined to occur from the off.
‘Didn’t Know What I Was In For’ starts the album dark as anything, and the title seems as much a nod to the listener about what’s ahead as it seems to represent the artists’ feelings towards life itself. Bridgers sings through earnest observations and realisations of herself, as the raw acoustic guitar plods along with her. She seals the song with the closing statement that life is just a promise that she made, and it’s indicative of a lot of through-lines and feelings that will crop up later on.
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The stance of the two on the presentation of honesty appears more prominently on the radio-ready single ‘Dylan Thomas’, where they sing of dying on the bar room floor “like” the titular poet. This reads as a clever jest about mythologising in celebrity culture, and the line ‘that ghost is just a kid in a sheet’ hits the angle home.
On ‘Chesapeake’, the two despair of the nature of the music industry and its faddist temperament, referencing The Replacements, Guns ‘n’ Roses, and even Hunter S. Thompson as they go (“good men die like dogs”). The instrumentation is kept at arm’s length here, and sings distantly behind the words, occasionally re-catching the ear with haunting and harmonious organ lines.
Continuing through ‘My City’, a sleepy ode to the towns we all grew up in, is this feeling of unease and discontent that drenches the album. The riff repetition is intended to match the notion described and the general theme of burnout/going through the motions, but never quite gets old.
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‘Big Black Heart’ is a true standout moment, pulling a guitar tone straight from a ’90s Hum or Placebo cut. There is a certain irritability to this track, even before it punches into another gear around the 2:20 mark, with the duo shouting “alright, alright for now, don’t wanna think about it”, over some wild distortion and metallic scratch sounds. The song (and in many ways the album) really paces itself to build to that release of frustrations, and it ultimately feels colossal. It feels like a closing track, and yet it’s followed by a cover of a Taylor Hollingsworth song, one of Conor’s Mystic Valley Band members.
‘Dominos’ is a lovely track that I’d hazard a guess was chosen to close the record for its final lines of “and if you’re not feeling ready, there’s always tomorrow”, before plunging into the now comfortable chaos of fuzzy electric noise once more.
The album treads weary through some difficult topics, but still manages to brandish perspective and champion the ability to even do so. ‘Better Oblivion Community Center’ is the kind of album that only comes around every once in a while: stuffed to bursting with thought-provoking, articulate and intelligent songwriting, and at just the right length to leave you wanting more. We may not have known this collaboration was coming, but we’re glad it did.