Album Review: Better Oblivion Community Center

When Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers released their Better Oblivion Community Center project at the start of the year it should have been the perfect album for me as I’m a Bright Eyes fanatic and someone who’d loved both of their recent solo work. Despite everyone on my timeline prompting me to listen, I kept avoiding it. Purposefully so, for a myriad of reasons which I only just recently began to really think about when I finally sat down with the album this past week.

A couple of years back I saw Conor supported by Phoebe at an acoustic show in Edinburgh. Phoebe seemed really cool and confident, her sad songs fragile but fierce at the same time. In contrast when Conor came on stage he was on edge, mainly singing songs from Ruminations – an album that was as bleak as anything he’d ever recorded. He was unsteady on his feet and at more than one point seemed like he was going to fall backwards or collapse. When Phoebe helped him sing Lua he leaned on her shoulder as though he needed her support just to stand upright. I left dazed by the brilliance of the music but more than a little concerned. I began worrying about him a lot and listening with fear to some of the darker songs that he’d recorded for Ruminations, in particular the brutal truths of You All Loved Him Once, about the impact of fame and devotion. Maybe this hero worshipping I’d been doing for years was too destructive for the artist (and fan too).

So a few months later I decided not to see Conor on his tour, the first I’d missed in years. At the time I had also started writing my blog and was committed to promoting female artists and breaking down those old prejudices that had made me worship male singer songwriters in the first place. I needed to get to some place where I could just enjoy the music and not create an obsessive attachment to the person. After all we don’t know these people at all, even if we think we do.

And that conclusion was further underlined a few months later when Phoebe began calling out Ryan Adams for his unacceptable behaviour. Along with Conor, Ryan was an artist I had worshipped forever, following his career with intense fervour. I had forgiven him for various behaviours that retrospectively seem indefensible because the music meant that much to me. After the NY Times article came out I felt pretty awful and angry about the whole situation. There was no way I could ever enjoy listening to this Better Oblivion album without being reminded of all these issues. I guess I was shooting the messenger to some extent, but avoidance was my way of dealing with it at the time.

So I ignored the album, worked on accepting this new reality and concentrated on listening to other things. But over the past wee while or so a lot of the music I’ve heard has left me feeling pretty uninspired. I like a lot of things, written about some of them but I felt oddly detached. That began to frighten me a little. Maybe I would never feel that intense passion for music again. Maybe by giving up hero worshipping I’d given up that ability to connect with music on a deeper level. There had to be somewhere in between letting something take over your life and feeling nothing at all. I began searching for that middle ground, hoping to find something to reignite me when I ended up back with this Better Oblivion Community Center album.

I listened to it once through without thinking too much about who was singing. It was everything I had been looking for – a comfort blanket of music that was exactly in my wheelhouse. I had given myself enough distance between the release date and listening to take it on its own terms without the hype. I enjoyed every song, finding something meaningful in the way these two artists had joined their songwriting together.

It’s not a folky duet album, as the duo purposefully aimed for a darker indie rock feel. They sing together most of the time, offering unity and support to each other. Conor has said working with Phoebe has made him a better singer, Phoebe has talked of her admiration for his poetic talents. There was something so positive in this collaboration, and that was the exact thing I really needed to hear right now.

The opening song Didn’t Know What I Was In For is one of the smartest, funniest and honest songs about the hypocrisy of humanity I’ve heard in a long time. Sleepwalking and Dylan Thomas both detail those everyday struggles to just survive but it’s not as dark as that suggests – their voices harmonise in such an appealing way throughout.

Working with someone young makes Conor sound renewed. Phoebe helped him to write Service Road, a song for his brother who recently died. It’s less bleak somehow with her voice echoing his. That ‘just go’ refrain is a moment of acceptance and understanding which feels momentarily comforting.

Exception to the Rule has a kind of ‘Digital Ash…’ inspired sound, showing that sometimes collaboration can bring you back round to old sounds as well as finding new ones. Chesapeake is one of my favourite songs on the album, about being swallowed up by the crowd and losing yourself in music. The song then addresses the music industry itself and how soul destroying it can be to see how your ‘hero plays to no one in a parking lot’ while inane crap takes over the charts. After listening I had to conclude that some quiet hero worshipping of your favourite artists has to be better than just letting bad music be the anonymous background soundtrack to your lives.

The second half of the album is perhaps not as strong as the first but it’s an enjoyable listen all the same. My City and Forest Lawn are as close to love songs as you get in the album. The latter imagines two lovers being buried together while teenagers drink in the cemetery above, a perfectly emo version of doomed romanticism. Big Black Heart descends into a thrash of guitars, a release from the acoustic folk influences both singers are known for. Final cover song Dominoes addresses drinking, an echo of his ode to New York pub St Dymphna’s on Ruminations.

There are hundreds of way to get through the day – listening to an album as smart, funny and consoling as Better Oblivion Community Center is as good a choice as any. Impending doom just sounds better when you share it with others. It took me a while to get here but sometimes you just need a break to find exactly what you’re looking for.

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