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Better Oblivion Community Center

Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst get it together on a charming collab album. John Earls sees potential

BETTER OBLIVION COMMUNITY CENTER

DEAD OCEANS

Although the announcement of Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst’s instantlyavailable joint album as Better Oblivion Community Center at the end of January was a surprise, the idea of them working together made perfect sense. Oberst was an early champion of Bridgers, who supported the former Bright Eyes leader on tour for his 2016 acoustic album Ruminations. She’d been a teenage Bright Eyes fan and Oberst returned the favour last February, duetting on the plangent Would You Rather on Bridgers’ album Stranger In The Alps. They’ve also often played live together.

In short, the existence of Better Oblivion Community Center is less of a shock than why it’s taken them so darned long. Quite why they’ve opted for an alias rather than going down the Courtney Barnett And Kurt Vile functional-naming route isn’t explained in the album’s gnomic press biography, in which they deny Better Oblivion Community Center is the name of a cemetery the pair visited put into Burmese on Google Translate, a rumour they’ve plainly started themselves. “Do people care where the name comes from?” asks Bridgers. “Nah,” responds Oberst. Well, OK…

Fortunately, the music is much less obtuse. Other than Bridgers’ heartbreaking I Didn’t Know What I Was In For and Oberst’s melancholic Dominos, which bookend the album, each providing sumptuous harmonies for the songs’ lead vocalists, Better Oblivion Community Center, the album, really does feel a collaborative effort. Given their respective catalogues and how Oberst is Bridgers’ spiritual forefather, it’s no surprise the album specialises in wistful longing.

Sleepwalkin’, Service Road and Forest Lawn are all fragile acoustics, the unadorned backing letting the pair test out the ways their voices meld in the studio. They’re both adept at letting each other shine, Oberst’s distinctive tremulous warble meeting Bridgers’ patient exasperation halfway. The pick of the ballads is Chesapeake, a movie waiting to happen where something devastating is lurking beneath the churning mood.

But Better Oblivion Community Center is even better when Bridgers and Oberst are out of their default setting. My City is sumptuous drivetime radio pop, where one of their past on-stage duets, a cover in Brooklyn of Sheryl Crow’s If It Makes You Happy (together with Sophie Allison from Soccer Mommy), suddenly makes perfect sense. Better still is Dylan Thomas, a full-throated assault where Oberst and Bridgers egg each other on to get wilder until it’s all topped off by a battering-ram guitar solo.

The phrase “side-project” and its attendant stigma will doubtless forever be attached to Better Oblivion Community Center. Courtney Barnett And Kurt Vile’s Lotta Sea Lice, the most obviously similar recent collabs album, isn’t generally as highly regarded as either singer’s best. If Better Oblivion Community Center isn’t quite as consistent as Stranger In The Alps or Bright Eyes’ Lifted…, it’s still powerful. Had they never released anything before, we’d be ranting and raving about a shining new talent. 8

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