review: Phoebe Bridgers & Conor Oberst’s Better Oblivion Community Center
Phoebe Bridgers' music has always been clearly influenced by Conor Oberst's early work as Bright Eyes, and Conor was one of her earliest champions. He took her on tour and collaborated on stage with her before her debut album was even out. He ended up duetting with her on "Would You Rather" off that album (which helped establish her as one of the best new artists around), continued to tour and sing on stage with her after its release, and collaborated with her last year on his new solo single "LAX" and on the Felice Brothers song "Patti." Now they've taken things one step further with a full-length collaborative album, recently hinted at and then surprise-released Wednesday night. Between Better Oblivion Community Center and boygenius, Phoebe Bridgers is on a roll with instantly-lovable indie supergroups.
Everything Phoebe touches lately turns to gold, and it couldn't be a better time in Conor's career for this collaboration either. Both "LAX" and his 2018 two-song single "No One Changes" / "The Rockaways" are cut from a similar cloth as Conor's somber, bare-bones classics, a sound he rediscovered -- sort of accidentally -- in 2016's Ruminations, his strongest solo album in years. The album was supposed to turn into a full-band album with The Felice Brothers backing him, but, in the tradition of Nebraska, the solo demos ended up becoming the actual album. (In 2017, he released the full-band version, Salutations.) So with Conor revisiting his roots, and Phoebe updating the sound of somber emo-folk for a new generation of sad kids, their voices and songwriting come together perfectly in Better Oblivion Community Center. It's only been out for a day but it's already clear that this is no tossed-off side project and no ego-fueled supergroup; it's an essential album for fans of either artist.
They've got plenty of the intimate, folky songs you'd expect from these two ("Didn't Know What I Was In For," "Service Road," "Chesapeake," "Forest Lawn," etc), and plenty of the instantly-quotable one-liners you'd expect from the lyric-centric pair ("There's no way I'm curing cancer, but I'll sweat it out" already feels like a classic line), but they do more than just mine familiar territory. "Exception to the Rule" takes them into bouncy, synthy art pop territory. "Big Black Heart" is the kind of driving emo rocker that might've fit on the first Desaparecidos album, but Phoebe's wailing delivery turns into something totally new (also, this make me want to hear Phoebe sing on more heavy songs). "Dylan Thomas," the single (and the one they played on Colbert), is a '90s-style alt-rocker that's bursting at the seams and begging to become a hit (it probably would have 25 years ago). Rounding out the full-band songs, by the way, is Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner on guitar, Phoebe's touring bassist Anna Butters, and regular Conor collaborator Carla Azar of Autolux and Jack White's band on drums. Phoebe collaborator, singer-songwriter Christian Lee Hutson is also the band’s main guitarist. Members of Dawes, who were Conor’s band on a recent tour, also play on the album.
There's just enough diversity on the album to keep things interesting, but the album never strays from its strong, purposeful vision. Compared to boygenius, which is excellent in its own right but came together more spontaneously and sounds more like the work of three separate individuals, Phoebe and Conor sound like an inseparable unit on this album. They spent months writing and recording it together, and you can tell. Their voices just gel in such a natural way. For the most part, it's hard to tell who wrote what, but it doesn't really matter. This is less Watch the Throne and more Run The Jewels, a project where two minds meet and immediately bring out the best in the other. Better Oblivion Community Center is the latest reason that Phoebe Bridgers is one of indie rock's brightest new voices, and it's a much-deserved late-career boost for Conor Oberst. And if Better Oblivion Community Center catches on, it sounds like they're open to pursuing it further than as a side project. "That would be great if this was a turning point in our lives, and we never can go back to our solo careers," Conor told Beats 1's Matt Wilkinson. "I'm over my career, so this would be a very good starting point."
Watch the Colbert performance and stream the album below...