The music of Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers has never been mistaken for up-tempo pop music, and in fact, is probably seen by many to be best suited to individual moping (I say this with love; I am a first-class moper). However, when the two artists come together on this true duet of an album, their shared worldview creates a sense of, well, community that can’t help but uplift the listener through sheer musical loveliness.
The eponymous album from the duo christened Better Oblivion Community Center is a lean collection, with just nine original tracks out of ten songs overall. Unlike some other collaborative albums from established artists that have come out in the past few years, each track here features plenty of vocals from both Bridgers and Oberst, letting the album’s sound feel truly collaborative rather than just a collection of Oberst’s and Bridgers’s songs alternating between each other. That balance should also render each song appealing enough to people who begin as a greater fan of one artist over the other: they will still find enough of what they love, and find a pretty decent introduction to the other in the meantime.
The album, though short, is full of ruminative songwriting centered on themes of death, anxiety, identity, life as musician, alcohol abuse, and in general just being a person trying to live in this world. The premature Industrial-era fear William Wordsworth expressed in his line “the world is too much with us” becomes an apt predecessor to the themes of this album, in particular, the sweeping opening track “Didn’t Know What I Was In For.” On it, Bridgers and Oberst pull you into their orbit with warm acoustic instrumentation and verses that build on each other in creating a sense of disorientation and helplessness. The title works as a bitter dual expression of being overwhelmed by life, as well as confused by hospital admittance. One leads to the other, which feeds back into the first, which creates a richly melancholic loop for these artists to explore.
The album isn’t all quiet reflection, though, and in fact, has a steady energy that keeps the listener buoyed throughout. “Sleepwalkin’” as the second track picks you right up from “Didn’t Know…” with an ambling rhythm that reflects the slightly high-strung anxiety the lyrics reflect, which goes into the slightly cheeky duet “Dylan Thomas.” Later track “My City” also works to equate a leisurely walk through the titular location, until a moment at the end of the song explodes and becomes the loudest part of the album, made all the more effective because it’s the only moment on the album like that. “Exception to the Rule” and “Big Black Heart” also stand out for similar reasons, as they each feature slight electronic touches, instead of acoustic, as well as some distorted vocals and instrumentation which create an unusually discordant listening experience.
This use of experimentation within the honed voices of Bridgers and Oberst lends itself to creating an album experience that is unique while still familiar. The lyrical themes and musical leanings of both artists are still recognizably here, but the combination of their perspectives in conjunction with the joining of their distinct vocals creates something wholly new. It makes sense to imagine that two great things working together would create another great thing. However, that’s not always as easily done when combining the talents of two people, no matter how similar they are. Here, we do get a combination that works and stands on its own as something apart from the two artists. Bridgers and Oberst are not just here to gather together some songs they wrote adjacent to each other. The Better Oblivion Community Center, as a group and an album, exemplifies the best results of collaboration, to the benefit of all of us.