Apparently, Phoebe Bridgers really likes working with other people. After releasing last year’s excellent boygenius EP in October with fellow indie stars Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, she has returned with another collaborative album, with virtually no prior warning. This past Thursday, our ears were blessed by the self-titled debut from Better Oblivion Community Center, a collaboration between Bridgers and emo-folk veteran Conor Oberst (most famous for his work with Bright Eyes).
Although the album was a surprise to everyone, it is not the first time that the two have collaborated. Bridgers’ excellent debut Stranger In The Alps (2017) features a duet with Oberst on the back half of the record called “Would You Rather.” The collaboration made sense on the album; Bridgers’ blend of haunting lyrics and folk-rock melodies bears obvious influence from Oberst’s work, which she likely would’ve listened to while growing up. It was a point of connection on the record to a previous generation of songwriters, showing the progression of the genre over time.
While “Would You Rather” is a duet and sounds like one, none of the songs on Better Oblivion Community Center play off as duets. It definitively sounds like a band effort. Although some songs have a more hushed, acoustic environment, most have some sort of full-band arrangement. And, while Bridgers and Oberst do take turns on lead-vocal duties, they are more often singing at the same time. Although side-by-side their voices can sound like an odd pairing (to me, Oberst’s nasally, cracked voice always sounded kind of funny next to Bridgers on “Would You Rather”), when they sing together the contrast works quite well. Sometimes Bridgers is mixed louder and sometimes Oberst is, but it is done in a way that spreads the tonal emphasis perfectly, helping their two distinct voices to blend and compliment one another.
The album also showcases both singers’ abilities as lyricists. The haunting opener “Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” is a Phoebe lead track where she, in her detailed style, takes the listener down the road of an existential crisis in the form of cosmic helplessness, “I didn’t know what I was in for / when I signed up for that run / there’s no way I’m curing cancer, but I’ll sweat it out / I feel so proud for all the good I’ve done.” Conor joins her on the chorus, and although you can surmise that this is a Phoebe song, he sounds perfectly natural singing along with her.
Although Oberst does not disappoint at all as a lyricist, his writing voice is so unique that Bridgers occasionally has a hard time keeping up in the same way that he does on her songs. The Oberst songs are the ones that, while strong, sound less like a band, and more like a Conor Oberst project. Again, this is not necessarily bad, but it makes the record slightly uneven at points. This is perhaps the strength and weakness of the album. Having more than one fantastic songwriter on the project is a dream, but as a result, it lacks the cohesion and emotional tension of both artists’ previous work at some points.
Better Oblivion Community Center is easily one of the best albums we have heard this year. Not only is it an example of phenomenal folk-rock songwriting, but also a truly fun project for as serious as the subject matter is. This record sounds like it was a joy to make and collaborate on; it comes through in every performance. While it may not be as emotionally gripping as their solo work, it doesn’t have to be in order to be a great record. Also, I’ve got to say, I really, really hope they tour together.
Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)
For info on how we score albums see our rating scale.
Label: Dead Oceans
Release Date: Jan 24, 2019