Better Oblivion Community Center
Phoebe Bridgers & Conor Oberst
The word supergroup is tossed around far too often. Often disappointing (remember Tinted Windows?) or laughable (remember Chickenfoot?), they are new bands that offer up little that is “super” musically yet get awarded the title by virtue of the fact that the members used to make great music elsewhere. The whole idea has “has-been” written all over it. Rare is it that a supergroup appears in the middle of a hot streak…which is exactly what happened in late 2018 with boygenius’ self-titled EP, a collaboration between Matador Records’ Lucy Dacus (whose second album Historian earned the #1 slot in Paste Magazine’s “Best Albums of 2018”), label mate Julien Baker (whose second album Turn Out the Lights was in Pitchfork’s top 20 for 2017) and an equally-hyped Dead Oceans artist named Phoebe Bridgers. All under the age of 25, each member of the indie trio is at the peak of their fame and, even better, the EP may be superior to anything the group members have done individually. Then came the next alleged supergroup.
This past Thursday, Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and announced the surprise release of their joint project, Better Oblivion Community Center. Immediately, faster than any press could actually listen to the release, this new combo was dubbed a super-duo. But let’s not jump the gun like so many others have. Let’s take a step back instead.
What makes Conor Oberst notable in the year 2019? Best known as frontman for Bright Eyes, he has only written and released one great song since his self-titled solo album in 2008. (Ironically, that song is called “You All Loved Him Once,” released in two different versions on Oberst’s companion albums, Ruminations and Salutations.) During that time, Oberst has had numerous groups he’s recorded under: Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, the Mystic Valley Band and his own name. No stranger to so-called supergroups, during this time Oberst was also part of Monsters of Folk, a band comprised of Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and two of Oberst’s frequent collaborators, one of which was M. Ward, once a hyped solo artist now best known for his cloying duo with Zooey Deschanel, She & Him. It seems Oberst has been trying to strike gold somewhere, but sadly has only been mining at a surface level. TL;DR: In 2019, Oberst needs Bridgers a lot more than she needs him.
That being said, collaborations with singer-songwriters who peaked in the aughts are not new to Phoebe Bridgers. First noticed for her 2015 EP Killer on Ryan Adams’ Pax-Am Records, she has been more than forthright about her romance with Adams. What began as Adams recording her eventually led to hooking up on his fortieth birthday when Bridgers was only twenty years old. The relationship that followed is mocked on Bridgers tune, “Motion Sickness,” the single from her debut album, Stranger in the Alps, which principally deals with themes of death and other ends. Also notable on that album? Conor Oberst guests on one tune, “Would You Rather.”
That about brings us up to date. Onto the music.
Better Oblivion Community Center’s album opens with a naked nylon string guitar, then a female voice: “A phone without a camera / If it did, I’d take a picture of myself.” A listener well-versed in Bridgers’ biography can’t help but laugh at the idea of her taking a relic from an earlier time and wanting to use it for her own self-interest. Oberst joins in singing an octave below Bridgers, a lazy place he stays for the majority of the album. We never hear him elevate his voice to an impassioned place, much less get the shriek Bright Eyes fans remember so fondly from the more personal period of his songwriting. In truth, this lower part of his vocal range is where Oberst has lived for most of the past eleven years. But the real crime of this choice is that the two singers do not sing in harmony for all but a few tunes—a wasted opportunity.
A track where Bridgers sings harmony is one of the stand-out tracks, “Forest Lawn,” a waltz that features the album’s only memorable hook. This is not an album of choruses, rather the lyrical structures more closely resemble those of Oberst, who has long favored refrains that slightly change with each repetition. This morphing mechanism has had more revelatory effects on other releases than it does here.
Lyrically, we get snapshots and pieces of emotional imagery, but the collage it forms strikes me as little more than clever wordplay that doesn’t add up to much. We do get the occasional line of more personal observations. These lines feel like they are Bridgers’ influence. “Everyone seems happy with each other until they step away and say what they really meant” is sung on “Didn’t Know What I Was in For,” reminding this listener of Bridgers raking Ryan Adams over of the coals in song.
Meanwhile, Oberst’s influence is all over the instrumentation. While Bridgers’ debut album was mostly quiet guitar and atmospheric strings with the occasional keys, Better Oblivion Community Center sounds more like the homogenized sound Oberst has lugged around to each project since he first stumbled upon road trip folk-rock on Bright Eyes’ Cassadaga in 2007. We get the occasional loud burst, like the sputtering electric guitar wheezing its way through a semi-solo on “Sleepwalkin’” or the fuzzed-out guitar at the end of “Big Black Heart.” And there is one synth track, the aptly named “Exception to the Rule.” The brief flashes of energy we get in those moments suggest more boredom than an underlying emotional pulse.
The most melancholy tune on the album is “Chesapeake.” It paints more lasting pictures than the other tracks: a couple hearing “Can’t Hardly Wait” for the first time at a concert, a busking musician who will never receive recognition. A capo’d guitar is wistfully strummed while a sad melody unfolds.
On the final track, “Dominoes,” they sing, “If we’re going somewhere I’m ready / Honey, if it’s nowhere, I’m done.” If that is truly the case, this may be the end of the road for Oberst. Even a collaboration with a red hot new indie songwriter cannot wake him from his slumber. As for Bridgers, hopefully fame has not stripped her of something worth singing about.