Back in 2017, Phoebe Bridgers’ debut album, “Stranger in the alps”, just eked its way into my top ten albums for the year. Since then, however, the album has grown in my esteem and if I had to redo the list, it might find its way a few spots higher. Bridgers, herself, has also become a bigger name, her indie cred seemingly as impervious as her keen ability to write songs and to turn any project she has a hand in to gold. Last year, for instance, she formed a supergroup of sorts with two other indie ‘it’ ladies, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, and released a six song EP under the name “boygenius”. She also seemed to be popping up quite regularly in my social media feeds and in news items on the music sites I frequent with other one-off collaborations, live performances or otherwise. Then, out of nowhere, this past January saw her announce a project with Conor Oberst (!) and the immediate, digital release of the eponymously named “Better Oblivion Community Center”.
To be honest, Oberst has never been a favourite of mine, though I have tried many times, sampling his solo work under his own name or the Bright Eyes moniker, and even his early punk band Desaparecidos. Yet when I gave this album a go, it sounded like his voice had found a home next to Bridgers’, and I immediately set myself to work trying to find a copy of it on vinyl. It wasn’t an easy task. With the usual pressing woes and delays and the seemingly incredible demand for it, the record wasn’t easily found. But that only made my success in finally obtaining it that much more sweet. Since then, it’s quite likely the new wax that has frequented my platter the most this year.
“Better Oblivion Community Center” is more than two like minded indie folk singer/songwriters working together. Despite their differences in backgrounds, experiences, and age, their work on this album suggests they are bringing the best out in each other, stretching each out of their collective comfort zones. Backed by usual collaborating musicians from both camps, along with contributions by members of Dawes and Yeah Yeahs Yeahs, Bridgers and Oberst have produced a ten song collection that sometimes does but doesn’t always jive with either of their past works. Yet all of it is great.
Have a listen to my three picks for you below and give me your thoughts.
“Service road”: Oberst starts this one off, singing solo over an introverted acoustic strum. “You should really call your brother. Someone put up a picture where he can’t stand.” This leads credence to the theory that it was inspired by his brother, who basically drank himself to death. But Oberst isn’t alone here. Bridgers joins him after the first verse and like you’ll find elsewhere on the album, their voices are stunning together. They sing as one, much like they wrote all the songs, and in this way, they are stronger, giving hope to the universal grief. And man, when Bridgers sings “who are you” at the choruses, it sends shivers.
“Didn’t know what I was in for”: Track one on the album was also the first one written for the project. Bridgers sings the first two verses of the song, it sounding very much like something off her solo album, struggling with herself and everything she sees around her. “My telephone, it doesn’t have a camera. If it did I’d take a picture of myself. If it did I’d take a picture of the water and the man on the offramp, holding up the sign that’s asking me for help.” And again, it all changes when, this time, Oberst joins her, and you realize it’s going to be very different this time around. The acoustic that is so prevalent at the beginning seems to take a backseat to the highly affected guitar effects that had threatened to be mainly decoration, the drums kick in and there’s momentary bliss. Yeah, it all seems so hopeless again at the end but there is something so thrilling in it all.
“Dylan Thomas”: The project’s second single and first to be released off the record also happened to be the final one written for it. By both accounts, it came the easiest. Named for a Welsh poet by whom there was a book in the house the album was recorded, the song is a catchy kick at the state of politics. Indeed, it is much like the showboating politicians they are raking, using shiny confetti to thinly obscure their message. It’s a jangly rocker. It’s a fun song to bop to. It’s Oberst and Bridgers singing together as they do through most of the album, a two-pronged assault, each highlighting the other’s text in bright yellow. In the end, it’s about getting all too comfortable with the uncomfortable. “I’m getting used to these dizzy spells. I’m taking a shower at the Bates Motel. I’m getting greedy with this private hell. I’ll go it alone, but that’s just as well.” …And with that, happy new year folks!
In case you missed them, here are the previous albums in this list:
10. Chromatics “Closer to grey”
9. Elva “Winter sun”
8. The Twilight Sad “It won/t be like this all the time”
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Ghosteen”
6. The Soft Calvary “The Soft Calvary”
5. Orville Peck “Pony”
4. Ride “This is not a safe place”
3. Tallies “Tallies”
2. The National “I am easy to find”
You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.