ALBUM REVIEW: Better Oblivion Community Center - Better Oblivion Community Center
Two writers of hard fate and tough luck, Phoebe Bridgers & Conor Oberst, come together to form a band. The result is a beautiful album about overcoming loss and coming to grips with powerlessness.
RELEASE DATE: 24 January 2019
GENRE: INDIE ROCK / FOLK LABEL: Dead Oceans
As a teenager, I had a very rocky love affair with Conor Oberst's singing. There was a constant anxiety in his voice, not to mention it's shaky and grating. "Pleasant" is not the word one would use to describe Conor Oberst's wails of emotional anguish. But in moments of quieter vulnerability, like in my first time hearing First Day of My Life , there is an incomparable honesty that he brings to words which proves that you don't have to abide by Shakespearean pretension in creating beautiful poetry. Eventually, I understood.
While Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie wrote most of my self-attributed themes of love and depression, Conor Oberst was my time-portal-to-the-past introduction to the likes of singer-songwriters like Elliot Smith or Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel. He opened a floodgate into indie music drenched in rugged, folk ethos, where the words are strong but the delivery is the momentum that lands the punch.
So when I heard the last-minute surprise news that he was starting a band with Phoebe Bridgers - one of the iconic figures of slow indie rock with somber sensibilities to date - and calling it Better Oblivion Community Center, I was a bit wary. Phoebe Bridgers is a conventionally good singer, at least in comparison to Conor Oberst. Her songs are heartfelt & piercing, such as in songs like Killer or her work with other wonderful contemporary indie singer-songwriters, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, in the supergroup boygenius (listen to their EP it's great), so as composers they would make an amazing match. But to be vocalists in the same song, the same album, is another matter altogether. Shouldn't it be awkward to pair them up? Especially if it's not a duet, wouldn't Phoebe Bridgers overshadow Conor Oberst, or the latter disrupt the former? Well, the short answer is no. The long answer is that Better Oblivion Community Center is a slow burn, but throughout the track list, a meaningful relationship is formed between the beautiful vocals of Phoebe Bridges and the endearing sad quality of Bright Eyes' lead singer. The album is filled with wonderful chemistry between Phoebe Bridger's acoustic saccharine and Conor Oberst's more austere, folk vocals. Their voices complement each other in odd ways and because they sing most of the lines together, it makes the lyrics feel like a representation of two different lives singing the same words and feeling the same emotions. It adds a universality to the topics they discuss, in line with the 'community center' concept.
In a large way, the project is about real life narratives and hard truths. The charm of Better Oblivion is its ability to cynically examine a subject matter while staying grounded. It's snarky in a way that acknowledges that they could be the very things they criticise. You can see this in opening track, Didn't Know What I Was In For, with lyrics about being desensitised to the horrors of daily news or feeling so awfully helpless in the face of global atrocities ( "My arms was wrapped in straight jackets, and I couldn't save those TV refugees" ). Lines like this are balanced by confessions of fault that make the song powerful and human ("We get burned for being honest/I've really never done anything, for anyone", "How living's just a promise that I made").
Another standout track is Dylan Thomas. By far the catchiest song in Better Oblivion, the song references the drunken Welsh poet who wrote "do not go gentle into the good night" (yes the poem featured in Interstellar) and his death. ("So sick of being honest/I'll die like Dylan Thomas/A seizure on the barroom floor"). There's a level of self-awareness here since Conor Oberst is often labelled my music media as a drunken poet of his generation too.The track is also the most political in the album as the duo takes a snide jab at rabid supporters of politicians that do stupid things by justifying that the "The king is only playing / A game of four dimensional chess". On top of all of that, there's the dastardly self-destructive chorus that's also empowering in a "fuck all of you" kinda way ( "I'm getting greedy with this private hell/I'll go it alone, but that's just as well ).
Directed by Michelle Zauner aka Japanese Breakfast.
Conor Oberst also gets really personal with the song Service Road. In this heartbreaking tribute to his brother who died of alcoholism, the album strips away any notion of romanticisation when it comes to substance abuse. It's songs like these that gave Better Oblivion Community Center a deep, emotional nuance. Phoebe Bridgers plays the role of a comforting angel when she sings "Who are you" while at the same time echoing the sentiment that people might be happy on the outside but are otherwise in shambles. (This is reflected by Conor Obersts line: "Thought that he was doing better/ A notice, final eviction, he just laughs). It's also beautiful how the song starts with Conor Oberst singing alone, eventually joined by the palliative company of Phoebe Bridgers.
Better Oblivion Community Center functions as a full band as opposed to a bare bones folk duo. The production has texture to give each track its own ambience. You can hear that in the steady build up in tracks like My City as it evolves from a subtle metronome backing audio samples off of a radio broadcast, to the climax represented by the line "Wearing a smile like a camouflage". (The verse "Risk it all on the game of chance / Chasing love like an ambulance" is also one of my favourite parts of the song). The heartbeat and songbirds in Dominos play out as wonderful narrative devices, just like the theremin-like synth effects in Chesapeake. Their worst track, Big Black Heart, in my opinion, is only bad because it doesn't stand out. Even then, the production in it is interesting, with creaky sound effects and distortion guitars to complete the frustration the song intends to convey. Some of the cuts on here don't even feel folk, like the song Exception to the Rule, which has like these little adorable, robotic "whys" that go on during the chorus. There's a lot of thought put not just to words but the sounds that accompany them. I keep revisiting this album over the past few weeks, and every time new verses or lines pop up to me. As bleak and as somber as they may seem, the references and metaphors are some of the best moments of lyricism in recent music history ( The song Dylan Thomas references the movie Psycho, where a woman gets stabbed in the shower: I’m getting used to these dizzy spells / I'm taking a shower at the Bates Motel) . It feels like going through a support group pamphlet, and finding little gems that sound like the writer was speaking to you personally. The fact that it's delivered with such passion by the artists makes it feel like an encroaching mural of hope. A mural you walk pass every day but never really heed, until one freer morning you decide to pay closer attention. There's optimism beneath its shaky lamentations, and most of all, there's love. As the duo sings to you "Oh sweet child of mine / You're always sorry for everything, never apologize", you are reassured by the fact that even if everything seems like an infinite abyss of despair, there is a better oblivion out there. Better Oblivion Community Center puts together the best of two artists and make it into a cohesive whole, with important stories to tell and passion to carry them through. FAV TRACKS: Didn't Know What I Was In For, Dylan Thomas, My City, Forest Lawn, Dominos WORST TRACK: Big Black Heart RATING: ★★★★☆