Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst are twin souls in the music industry. Oberst, an emo-indie-folk-rock legend and former frontman of celebrated band Bright Eyes, has been writing confessional, straight-to-the-core music since his beginnings nearly 20 years ago. Bridgers’s first studio album, Stranger in the Alps, was released in 2017. But despite their generational differences, the duo seem to operate on the same creative frequency. In the first promotional pictures for their new group Better Oblivion Community Center, they seem more comfortable with each other than even a brother and sister may be. Though Bridgers has been a devoted fan of Oberst since she was a teenager, their partnership is equal, an intertwined effort to tell the narratives that exist between both of them as truthfully as possible.
Better Oblivion Community Center is Bridgers’s second group effort in the last year after 2018’s boygenius, a similarly self-titled record by the silver-haired songwriter and other folk-nouveau standouts Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus as boygenius. Where boygenius allowed the three artists to merge into one musical voice, separate from each of them individually, Better Oblivion Community Center is an album that allows Bridgers and Oberst to do the opposite. The record is an interesting mix of the folk-confessional sensibilities that both artists are known for and a frenetic, inventive rock edge that takes the listener by happy surprise on songs like “Dylan Thomas” and “Exception to the Rule.” They started writing together after first meeting a few years ago, and eventually realized that those songs needed a home bigger than their own respective projects to flourish. And thus, Better Oblivion Community Center was born.
Oberst and Bridgers have collaborated before, on Bridgers’s heart-wrenching ballad “Would You Rather” from her debut LP, and the pairing was momentary lightning. Both musicians have a spectacular knack for writing music that doesn’t beat around the bush in any way, shape or form. Instead, each lyric and turn of phrase digs its heels into the listener’s emotional psyche, dredging up the feelings and memories that most of us try to forget. It’s crying-in-the-bathroom music, walking-home-in-the-dark music, squinting-in-the-morning-sun music, goodbye-kiss music. But most of all, Better Oblivion Community Center is just good music. Their self-titled album was released last week without notice, but feels like it’s always been there; a gathering of the two’s deepest secrets and wildest fantasies in the bare-bones packaging of their folk songwriting.
In an interview with CBS This Morning, Bridgers explained the unexpected album drop as a calculated decision on the part of her and Oberst. They instead chose to cryptically tease the Better Oblivion Community Center on social media, posting pictures of pamphlets to the elusive organization and even put up a bench-back poster in their native Los Angeles advertising the group. From this, fans of the two could infer that a project was happening, but the actual product is a breath of unforeseen air. Bridgers and Oberst sing in unison for most of the record’s 10 songs, but their voices are different enough from each other that it creates a sort of strange harmony. Others may take this as a lost opportunity, but the pair knew exactly what they were doing in the process of writing these songs. Each track sounds like friends exchanging stories at a bar, a distillation of the pain and happiness they share into dueling melodies.
The album is a series of vignettes from Bridgers and Oberst’s lives and those of the characters they create, taking place on service roads, in cars with the radio turned up loud, in a “shower at the Bates Motel.” The songwriters are masters of capturing these moments in their own work, but together, it is even more apparent. Life is fun, crazy, unpredictable and sad — no one gets this more than the many voices of the Better Oblivion Community Center. Bridgers and Oberst’s project has proven itself to be an earnest and successful effort on their part, stringing together fleeting moments in time like pearls on dental floss; beautiful but always on the precipice of falling apart. This fragility is something we all can relate to, and in that very human understanding the record finds its power.