Two weeks ago, Phoebe Bridgers and Connor Oberst, under the guise of The Better Oblivion Community Center, blindsided (and delighted) the indie world with a surprise album. The two have worked together before, collaborating on “Would You Rather” off Bridgers’ debut album and in various live performances, making the pairing an obvious match. Both singer-songwriters are known for their melancholy-with-a-hint-of-irreverence writing style – and the final product brings out the best in both artists. Bridgers’ conversation lyrics along with Oberst’s ability to let a song fall of the rails combine to create a work that manages to satisfy fans of both artists, while also adding a new dimension to their sound.
The albums lead track, “Didn’t Know What I Was in For”, kicks off on a familiar note, with Bridgers’ breathy vocal over an acoustic guitar. As Oberst comes crackling in, the two sing about the helplessness of the modern new cycle, and our inability so solve the world’s problems. With her typical winking nihilism, Bridgers sings, “I didn’t know what I was in for/When I signed up for that run/There’s no way I’m curing cancer/But I’ll sweat it out/I feel so proud now for all the good I’ve done.” The next two songs, however, are much larger, highlighting Oberst’s influence on the music. “Sleepwalkin’”, which sounds as if it’s straight out of a Flake Music album, burns a little slower than “Dylan Thomas”, but both offer new textures that play well with the duo’s vocals. “Dylan Thomas” is the highlight of the album, with a buzz saw guitar providing the stage for Oberst and Bridgers to open up vocally.
While the album certainly demonstrates a refreshingly energetic quality in both artists, the two unsurprisingly shine in the darker moments as well. Bridgers floats over Oberst’s weary vocal during “Chesapeake”, as the two sing about life as a struggling artist. “My hero plays to no one/ in a parking lot/Even though there’s no one around/He broke a leg and the house came down/A smattering of applause/A sliver moon and a cover song,” as the sounds of a windy shore drift behind them. On “Exception to the Rule”, Oberst and Bridgers muse on their inability to escape the trappings of modern life over a Stranger Things-esque beat. The penultimate song, “Big Black Heart”, is similarly dark, utilizing a driving synth and an urgent, modulated vocal to leave the listener with a lasting sense of unease.
The songwriting here is about as good as one would expect from such a highly regarded duo. While Bridgers can occasionally fall victim to sad-song and folk tropes, she does an excellent job of putting a fresh, often sarcastic spin on what could otherwise descend into heavy-handed melancholia. Oberst flashes his typical quivering, indie-philosopher chops, and seems to have helped to push Bridgers out of her musical comfort zone into bigger, more varied sounds and instrumentations. This album represents yet another feather in Oberst’s well decorated cap, and in interesting development for Bridgers, who continues her rise as one of the most talented indie rock artists today.