The Lowdown: Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst are no strangers, with Bridgers opening for Oberst early in her career and Oberst singing alongside her on “Would You Rather” from her formidable debut, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps. Still, it was surprising last week when the two announced that they had recorded Better Oblivion Community Center, an entire 10-track album, and then released it with almost no advance notice. Their styles fit naturally, as both Oberst and Bridgers have a knack for wry observation and wringing empathy out of their subjects. Bridgers used to learn and play Bright Eyes songs with her friend while a teenager, but the relationship between her and Oberst is far from student-teacher, as they approach the process as equals. Writing all 10 songs together in the same room, the two made something that feels borne out of collaboration rather than a patchwork of separate ideas.
The Good: The most striking aspect of Better Oblivion Community Center is how often Bridgers and Oberst sing in unison, harmonizing rather than trading dueling barbs. While there are a few times you can tell from the heavy, crisp guitar tones or the verbose, winding melodies whether Bridgers or Oberst was likely the primary songwriter, the album is built on them meeting in the middle. Bridgers, who has been on a hot streak between her debut and principal role on last fall’s excellent boygenius EP alongside Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, pushes Oberst to deliver some of his best work in years. When their styles combine, her intuitive introspection and his sly social commentary, the result is a moving song like opener “I Didn’t Know What I Was in For”, where the two confront their own privileges and fears with a deft touch.
The Bad: While the broad generalization about both musicians focuses on quiet, contemplative ballads, the strongest moments here are the loudest, the impassioned shouts of “Sleepwalkin’” and the rollicking “Dylan Thomas”, a political track where Bridgers reigns in some of Oberst’s preachy tendencies and a topical line about “four dimensional chess” lands with a chuckle. In fact, the album’s quiet moments, largely sequenced on the softer side B, is where the ties start to fray, and songs like “My City” and “Forest Lawn” feel more like songwriting exercises than fully realized ideas. Along with pushing each other to work together, they step out of their comfort zones to varied results, including the blistering noise rock on “Big Black Heart” that shines and the clunky synth rock on “Exception to the Rule” that falters.
The Verdict: That Better Oblivion Community Center even exists is a marvel in itself, but that it rises to a substantial addition to both artists’ catalogs is the real surprise here. While the fiery three-song opener is the standout, by working out a full album rather than a quick EP, the two create a purposeful and ambitious work. In the past two years, Bridgers has emerged as a tremendous songwriter, and working with Oberst finds her honing her craft and makes plain the link between them. More a revitalizing burst of energy than a passing of the torch, Better Oblivion Community Center frequently finds Bridgers and Oberst bringing out the best of each other.
Essential Tracks: “I Didn’t Know What I Was in For”, “Dylan Thomas”, and “Big Black Heart”