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Better Oblivion Community Center - Better Oblivion Community Center (Album Review)

Friday, 01 February 2019 Written by Huw Baines

Photo: Nik Freitas

The rapid pace of Phoebe Bridgers’ recent work has reintroduced a spark of unpredictability to the top branches of indie-rock’s tree. It recalls a time in the early ‘90s when Kim Deal put out five LPs with three bands in five years, and a peak celebrity Billie Joe Armstrong could pop up in Pinhead Gunpowder for a bit when he fancied it.

After breaking through with ‘Stranger in the Alps’ in 2017, Bridgers took up with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker late last year to release an EP as Boygenius, and now the Los Angeles songwriter has thrown her lot in with Conor Oberst, of Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos and solo fame, for a new album under the banner Better Oblivion Community Center. 

After combining for Would You Rather, on Bridgers’ debut, they have stitched their respective styles together here, finding new avenues that work for them by letting the other take the wheel.

Across a slate of engaging indie-folk songs, Bridgers adds steel to Oberst’s vintage, cracked melodies, while he brings a loose, rakish charm to moments like the effervescent single Bob Dylan. They work well together, and the record is beautifully appointed.

The duo consistently make good decisions at opportune moments, even if that means staying in their lane. After a relatively straightforward, often sombre, opening run they take advantage of a synth-led pop gem in Exception to the Rule, recalling Bright Eyes’ ‘Digital Ash in a Digital Urn’ in the process. Likewise, the gorgeous lament Chesapeake, a companion to Boygenius’s Ketchum ID if you’re collecting place names, is perfectly situated at the heart of the piece, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner pops up to add thrilling slabs of guitar noise from time to time.

Everything is shot through with a sort of creeping anxiety at the transient nature of time and happiness; a very relatable sort of modern ennui. “Is this having fun? It's not like the way it was,” the pair sing on Sleepwalking. On Service Road, meanwhile, there’s the spectre of discovering troubling news secondhand through a social media post (“You should really call your brother, someone put up a picture where he can't stand.”) and on My City a listless glide through busy streets: “This town is a crowded movie. This town is a depot. I come and go.” It’s all very familiar; balladeering for the 21st century.

Where country great Emmylou Harris added a mournful, cinematic tone to her collaborations with Oberst on ‘I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning’, Bridgers is a more arch, knowing foil. There’s almost less of a barrier to the writing because a lot of people will see themselves in the grim fluorescent light of ‘Better Oblivion Community Center’—they have to grin and bear it through a commute, they don’t understand why things worked out a certain way, they miss being excited by stuff that used to excite them. 

All of that frustration is here, bobbing anxiously next to earworm melodies. For that reason it’s tempting to hope that this is a one off—a time capsule—even if the pairing at the heart of this project is so enjoyable that the word MORE might as well be lit up in neon at the end.

Better Oblivion Community Center Upcoming Tour Dates are as follows:

Fri May 10 2019 - BRISTOL O2 Academy Bristol
Sat May 11 2019 - LONDON O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire
Sun May 12 2019 - MANCHESTER O2 Ritz

Click here to compare & buy Better Oblivion Community Center Tickets at Stereoboard.com.

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