A few of the universe’s loose threads came together when Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst met by chance. In 2016 they played the same show, LA music event Swampy Soiree at the Bootleg Theatre, and recognized the power in each other voices. On Jan. 24, the two surprised-dropped “Better Oblivion Community Center,” the debut album of their homonymous band. In an interview with BBC Radio 6, the pair shared that the name is an ode to getting through the struggles that life brings with everyone else going through similar challenges. Their marketing thus far has portrayed the band as a real community center offering “chosen family therapy,” “free human empathy screening” and “sacred crystal implanting and removing.”
Oberst and Bridgers both had established, successful careers in alternative music. The two fuse together to form a swirling vortex of silver linings and ink blue heartache. To give a visual, their music is this chaotic mass of beautiful color that you want to jump into but have no idea what the inside might hold. The first time they worked together on Bridger’s song “Would You Rather,” Oberst’s feature makes Bridergers voice singing “we have the same face” pop more and their harmony in “you’ll show me a hundred different ways to say the same thing” resonates with intention.
“Better Oblivion Community Center” is truthful, poignant and expressively human. It feels like an open-ended answer to a question you never realized you’d been asking. The first song “Didn’t Know What I Was in For” brings in the listener with its harmonica-backed plaintive lyrics. It’s a question of what life really is, if your existence is really impactful, and it’s tied together with a closing lyric that acts almost like a question: “Sit on the couch and think about/
How living’s just a promise that I made.” The following song “Sleepwalkin” brings a youthful element to the album. It feels like a summer song, but it’s not just about romance. It’s about recklessness and reflection. Lyrics like “Thought that you loved this stuff/Or did I make that up?” sung in harmony to rising tempo and expressive guitar, evokes the feelings of doubt and disappointment any listener is familiar with. It brings up times you might have misread someone’s intentions or just realized a connection you thought you had wasn’t really there.
In the doleful “Service Road,” Oberst mourns his brother’s death but the pair wrote lyrics so meaningful that it’s hard not to relate. When they harmonize “Say what you mean, and say it now/Don’t state your name, that doesn’t count,” it’s impossible not to feel it in your heart.
“Better Oblivion Community Center” is more than just lyrics, though. Its music is ebbing and builds beautifully. The unchecked rock at the end of “Big Black Heart” and electronic notes in “Exception to the Rule” make the songs memorable and fun even when their lyrics poise more serious questions. Perhaps the biggest banger on the tracklist is “Dylan Thomas,” featuring exuberant instrumentation feels independent and euphoric. Really, the whole album is a joy to listen to. Its sequencing is impeccable, and it feels like hearing a story. Except, it’s a story about you.
“Better Oblivion Community Center” will tour the US March through April, and their “community meetings” are nearly sold out. Afterward, they’ll bring their “healing sound bath” to Europe. To see what the community center is all about, check out their “Dylan Thomas” music video directed by Japanese House at www.betteroblivioncommunitycenter.org.
Conor Oberst has an expansive dischoreography, including works from his bands Bright Eyes and The Mystic Valley Band, tracks from bands he was a member of such as Desparecideos and Monsters of Folk and works under his own name. His newer music has faded into the background of the indie scene these past few years, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t make his mark while at the forefront. Leaving behind gems such as Bright Eyes’ “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” album with its hopeful “First Day of My Life” and yearning “Lua”, Oberst’s voice howls out pain at lost or fumbled relationships, jabs at politicians and, most memorably, subtle expressions of hope. Even his angstier albums like “Fevers and Mirrors”, counter agony and self-deprecation with music that encourages survival.
Phoebe Bridgers is an up-and-coming music artist with a soulful, siren-like voice. Like Oberst, her lyrics are full of life — the parts of it we cry more about than discuss with neighbors. In her song “Funeral” she sings, “Wishing I was someone else, feeling sorry for myself/When I remembered someone’s kid was dead,” and anyone listening can feel the internal melancholy we all experience and the external hardships that make it difficult to acknowledge that. Bridgers is blunt and soft without shaking the power her words hold: she speaks the pieces of love words often cannot identify, and her talent forces you to hear them. Her discography goes back to 2015 and includes another collaborative work boygenius with Julian Baker and Lucy Dacus.