Better Oblivion Community Center Review
by Mateo Rispoli
Conor Oberst has been active as a songwriter since before 24-year-old Phoebe Bridgers has been alive. A brisk 38 himself, he released his first album, Water (1993) via cassette when he was only 13. On here, Oberst sings about longing, desire for what he can’t have, and even gets so specific as to drop names of people in the situations he’s singing about. He conveys some of the subtle complexities of love, a feat that is commendable for someone of such a young age. He’s coping through oversharing. If the years have shown anything for Oberst, its that sharing is his specialty, and he’s found far more eloquent ways to do so. The Better Oblivion Community Center is a wellness center in concept (offering “assisted self-care” according to the band’s social media accounts). It is a place where people can come and scrape some sentimentality off their chest and hopefully help others in the circle with your experience. In that sense, every album Oberst has ever released has been a meeting of the Better Oblivion Community Center, and maybe that's what he saw in Bridgers’ work when he reached out to put together this project.
Better Oblivion Community Center is a theater of waning romance and confusion. Neither Oberst nor Bridgers are playing the part of star crossed lovers looking for a windy folk rock background to confess their love for each other. If anything, they’re contemplating whether they’d lose anything by splitting. They’re not playing parts at all, and when they sing their voices may as well be one. Their chemistry in performance and delivery is also present in their songwriting, often expressing similar sentiments. While critiques of political showmanship (“Dylan Thomas”), desensitization from the 24-hour news cycle (“Didn’t Know What I Was In For”), and other sociopolitical issues are riddled throughout the album, the two lean into the wide array of emotions associated with separation, impending and otherwise. On “Service Road,” Oberst grapples with the heart-wrenching loss of his brother, starting off with a shakily rendered first verse. His voice levels out as Bridgers joints him for the chorus. They manage to incorporate personal experiences while still maintaining thematic coherence; it sounds like they’re keeping each other company.
The production is surprisingly diverse and genuinely exciting as the album breezily moves through its 38-minute runtime. “Exception to the Rule,” with its jagged synth lead and vocal samples manage to keep a folk-rock tinge in lyrical delivery and heavy-handed percussion to create one of the most unique textures either artist has explored. Even in the most traditional folk style on tracks like “Chesapeake,” the recordings sound airy and Oberst and Bridgers’ voices are free in the mix. Significant props should be given to lead guitarist Nick Zinner, of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fame, who bolsters a few tracks with some seriously tasteful guitar solos.
The album opens with “Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” an acoustic build with a characteristically emo tinge. Bridgers takes the first two verses by herself, commenting on the poverty she sees around her as well as her mundane job at the public pool. Oberst joins in for the first chorus, and relents “there's no way I'm curing cancer/But I'll sweat it out/I feel so proud now for all the good I've done.” The incredible chemistry between the two stands at the forefront of the track, as they harmonize over their mutual feelings of dissonance with everything else. It’s clear that both songwriters feel out of step, they feel a general sense of unrest. Regardless of their contributions, they struggle to feel they've done enough in the face of actual tragedy, referring to “TV refugees/when they’re on their backs/In a bloody bath.” The final chorus sees the two reconciling with their fame, and recognizing that they don’t necessarily see what they do as a service to society, “I didn’t know what I was in for/ When I laid out in the sun/We get burned for being honest/I've really never done anything, for anyone.” It’s a primer for what is to come, and it sets the tone for the type of stories the group is going to hear in this “assisted self-help” session.
Better Oblivion Community Center Performance of “Dylan Thomas” on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
“Dylan Thomas,” poppy, endearing, and beautifully harmonized in equal measure, is undoubtedly the centerpiece of the album. Oberst and Bridgers sing about “the king,” his game of “four-dimensional chess,” and how “the truth is anybody’s guess.” “Sleepwalkin’” is a song of back and forth, instrumentally and lyrically. Oberst and Bridgers trade verses as if they are weary lovers on different pages, cleverly speeding the song up during the chorus and outro (the two parts that are sung in unison), only to drop the tempo again for the verses. Zinner tops it all off with a fuzzy solo that incorporates his drone influences. “Big Black Heart” features some of the most jagged production, distorted bass, delay-laden guitar and percussion in tow. The whole thing eventually devolves into a screechy and abrasive anthem about keeping it together at the end of a relationship and making room for something else.
Given all the pamphlets inviting new members that accompanied the rollout of the album, a hotline from which listeners could hear a snippet from the album, and a US tour that sold out in a matter of minutes, it seems unlikely that this is the last we’ve seen of the duo. The Better Oblivion Community Center is built with chipped bricks made from romantic doubts and sealed together with existential and moral contemplations. There’s nothing totally optimistic about it, but it sounds like they accept the lack of positivity, in fact, they embrace it. Oberst and Bridgers thrive in this thematic environment, almost as they feel they must be of some emotional service to the listener. They genuinely understand songwriting as a vehicle for comfort, support, and meaning.