Throughout January of this year, a mysterious group by the name of Better Oblivion Community Center dropped Easter eggs and hints all over the Internet, growing anticipation. The group managed to gain some traction by releasing a Better Oblivion Community Center hotline and confusing the general public. They even made Seterogum’s “The 101 Most Anticipated Albums of 2019” list.
When the much-awaited self-titled album dropped January 24 and the veil dissolved, the project was exposed to be an iconic duo of every alt-girl’s dreams: Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridges.
Conor Oberst is often heard, rarely seen. He’s been prominent in the alternative music scene since 1995 as the frontman of Bright Eyes. You may recognize that name from hits such as “First Day of My Life,” or if you’ve ever seen “Stuck in Love.” Before disbanding in 2011, Bright Eyes had found a niche and made a name for themselves.
Oberst went on to do numerous solo and side projects, including one of my favorite albums of all time, Upside Down Mountain.
Phoebe Bridges isn’t necessarily as veteran as Oberst, but she has carved out a place in the alternative music scene in the short number of years she’s been active. Beginning her career in 2014, Bridgers has conquered quite some territory in terms of musical success.
Bridgers got her start working alongside famed female alternative musician, Julien Baker. Bridgers took off upon then release of her 2017 album, Stranger in the Alps, and has since joined collaborative side projects such as Boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center.
Bridger’s appeal is similar to that of Julien Baker, Maggie Rogers or Mitski. They have soft, yet powerful voices which carry guitar riffs on a magic carpet of harmony. Their music is just similar enough that if you like one of them, it is likely you like all of them.
Better Oblivion Community Center is not the first collaboration from Oberst and Bridgers. The duo has been touring since 2018 and have recorded tracks together.
Bridgers told New Musical Express, “We wrote a song together and it was fun. And we were like, ‘Ah! It doesn’t immediately fit into one of our styles ... maybe we should put out a seven or something.’”
“Then it ended up being a full record,” Oberst said to New Musical Express.
In describing the band’s name, Oberst told New Musical Express, “For me, it’s kind of like impending doom mixed with the positivity of a community center. Like, we’re all in this together. So, kind of the duality of that.”
Oberst and Bridgers both specialize in sad music, to be general. There is an air of nostalgia, regret and yearning that undercurrents most, if not all, of their songs — both as individuals and on Better Oblivion Community Center. They both describe their world outlooks in their lyrics with similar uses of figurative language. This compatibility within their individual projects makes them the perfect musical duo.
The album itself alternates between melancholy and angst. Tracks like “Sleepwalkin’” carry a folksy sound that is familiar with fans of Oberst, while others like “Big Black Heart” experiment with distorted sound and ambient noise.
The album’s hit track, “Dylan Thomas,” is driven by upbeat acoustic guitar and prominent tambourine. Percussion is a vital aspect of this album, yet at times understated. “Dylan Thomas” contains a guitar solo that is unmatched by any other track on the album. It’s a dance-able track, unlike most of its counterparts.
Bridgers and Oberst write honest lyrics which are often cloaked with clever uses of metaphors and similes. They tell tales through allegories in order to convey messages. Such as in “My City,” the duo speaks of a place that was once home. They harmonize, “Today was a smoking sky. Today was a civic menace. Today, I went walking while things explode.”
Bridgers screams over the bridge, “Looking bad like those Vegas odds / Wear a smile like it’s camouflage.”
The album carries themes of regret and nostalgia — Bridgers and Oberst yearn for things that once were. These are common topics for these two. Oberst’s 2014 album Upside Down Mountain contains similar motifs of alienation, loneliness, as well as personal accounts of depression and anxiety.
Bridgers and Oberst don’t shy away from discussing the human condition and some lyrics are so honest, they’re borderline uncomfortable. Listening to Better Oblivion Community Center is like taking a corkscrew to your bottled emotions. While some tracks are light-hearted, the whole album carries a heavy air
On “Didn’t Know What I Was in For,” the duo croons, “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 now for all the good I’ve done.”
Oberst and Bridgers push the listeners’ noses into all the feeling and regret which is often avoided. Better Oblivion Community Center relates to the audience through pain rather than fun, upbeat joy.
Better Oblivion Community Center is a first-person folk-rock tale of the human condition, broken down using an amalgamation of creative storytelling devices. The album may evoke some tears, or it may make you feel less alone. Either way, give it a shot.
Better Oblivion Community Center will be performing at The Wiltern in Los Angeles, California on August 9. In the meantime, check out their NPR Tiny Desk Concert.