I’m of the opinion that collaboration doesn’t get celebrated enough in mainstream music. Sure, there are plenty of landmark records that are a direct result of two or more amazing artistic talents linking up (DOOM and Madlib’s Madvillainy, The Postal Service’s Get Up, etc.) but generally speaking, I think collab records are one the more exciting and underappreciated music events that occur on a regular basis. From the pure perspective of a fan, the coming together of two of your favorite artists is almost always exciting and uplifting – an instant anticipation builder. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, it represents the potential to create something great and reflective of the various styles and ideas being brought together.
Dropping completely out of the blue, Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst’s collaboration, officially known as Better Oblivion Community Center, will likely rank among this year’s top moments in indie music, sheerly off the fact that two artists of this caliber, in this specific genre, with their relative appeal, came together to make a record.
Despite that they are at completely different points in their career, on paper, Bridgers and Oberst starting a band makes near perfect sense. There is nearly a fifteen year age gap between Oberst and Bridgers, and Conor has been in more bands than the amount of albums Phoebe has to her name, but today, right now, their styles offer a very similar emotional appeal. Their solo material is autobiographical, often sad and creates a gentle and shy atmosphere within each song. It’s not a new formula, but painting a pretty picture with a voice and little more than a guitar is a tradition that never goes out style, and both Bridgers and Oberst are highly capable artists in that regard.
Their new self-titled record is a quietly abrasive and tight display of contemporary folk-rock. The songs are well-written, well-produced and well-performed – which is all unsurprising considering the solid footing both artists have in the current indie landscape.
Riding high off 2017’s Stranger in the Alps and last year’s boygenius EP, Bridgers has seen her profile steadily rise in a short period of time, drawing praise and affection for her cool and whispery folk songs. From a marketing perspective, she’s the real selling point in this collaboration.
In contrast to the 24-year old Bridgers, Oberst has quietly played a major role in shaping the indie rock sound of the new millenium. Dancing between forms of pop, folk and country-flavored instrumentation, Oberst’s knack for penning intimate dirges has endured and aged well over the course of multiple decades. As a team, he and Bridgers’ similarities make for a solid level of consistency. While their new material is not particularly inventive or outside the box, the music offers a number of enjoyable tunes worth chewing on.
Better Oblivion Community Center finds a good balance of soft acoustic songs and amped up rock tracks. The record’s opener, “I Didn’t Know What I Was in For,” is among the prettiest compositions on the LP, with Bridgers and Oberst shakingly harmonizing over a discreetly arranged guitar and faint, waning synths. Bridgers’ tender voice works like a soft blanket, gently coating the subdued strumming in lyrics of adolescent uncertainty and indifference.
Among other ballads, “Service Road” and “Chesapeake” are the most effective at blending an intimate aesthetic and interesting narrative. The former is driven by Oberst’s fragile vocal lead, with Bridgers chiming in with a breezy intro to the chorus, making for a soothing lullaby that sees the pair seeking honesty and openness from their figurative partners.
While Bridgers and Oberst both have a firm grasp on the quiet and personal breakup song, they spend an equal if not greater amount of time flexing their affinity for hardcore. On multiple occasions, the duo begins a song in a familiarly gentle and slow-building manner, then gradually escalates into a wild and shouty performance, most notably on “Big Black Heart,” on which a fragmented drum machine and screeching guitars accompany Bridgers and Oberst’s grungy howls into a chaotic finish.
Similarly, “My City” finds a sweet rhythm in a casual acoustic riff, but picks up with bursts of distortion on each chorus. “Sleepwalkin’,” an awkward, percussion-driven ballad, attempts to follow suit, but the true showstopper comes on “Dylan Thomas,” a melodic guitar jam that will surely sit among this year’s best folk and rock songs. The brilliance of this track alone makes the project worthwhile.
For the everyday indie folk fan, this record will certainly be enjoyable and replayable. The relatability in Bridgers’ sad-girl novellas and the depth in Oberst’s achy delivery, coupled with the variety of soft acoustics and high energy band mixes, is endearing and has a charming, youthful touch. In the grand scheme of things, however, this album would be better off as an EP. Beyond the four or five best tracks, every other song feels like a slightly more underwhelming replica of another. For a well-crafted, semi-thoughtful folk-rock release, the best moments on the LP are admirable, but far from stellar. Still, this coming together of two of the most likable faces in this sector of indie music, shouldn’t be treated as just another event. Fortunately, the Better Oblivion Community Center concept looks to have some staying power.
Favorite tracks: Didn’t Know What I Was in For, Dylan Thomas, Chesapeake, My City