Music

Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers’ New Album Is Both a Throwback and Perfectly Timed

The duo makes a fitting cross-generational pairing for 2019.

Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers onstage.
Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers perform at the Luck Reunion concert in Spicewood, Texas, on March 16, 2017.
Gary Miller/Getty Images

I feel at a bit of a loss to explain fully the chest-smacking satisfaction I felt on first listening to the eponymous album by Better Oblivion Community Center, which stole into the world almost entirely by surprise on Wednesday night, after nearly two years of surreptitious co-writing in Los Angeles by the cross-generational team of songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst. Sure, I came to it already admiring both—for nearly 20 years in Oberst’s case, since the days of his Omaha, Nebraska–based band, Bright Eyes, albeit with many ups and downs; with Bridgers, since her heart-swallowing 2017 solo debut Stranger in the Alps, along with last year’s EP by her other collaborative project, Boygenius. I should also grant that the kinds of wounded-and-dyspeptic folk-rock hues they each specialize in occupy ample bandwidth in the spectrum of my tastes, especially when peppered with disruptive noises and jokes. But as for why, in the final gasps of January 2019, this feels like the gift I had no idea I was craving … I’d have to start with the sequencing.

Sequencing is the mostly invisible art of setting the order of the tracks on an album. If you have ever made a mixtape or playlist, you’ve practiced it. And the sequencing on this album appeals to a platonic form of albumness that often seems lost to either sprawl or sporadicity in the streaming era. While not every song in this set, clocking in at the platonic album length of 40 minutes, is equally strong, the sequencing ensures every song plays its role. The first starts with a spare, intimate, solo verse from Bridgers, opening with the line, “My telephone, it doesn’t have a camera,” a quiet sign that this album is going to situate itself a step outside the everyday churn. Then, Oberst’s voice joins her, and finally the full band comes in—drums last—to just-short-of-anthemic effect, with lyrics that set up a running theme about individual inadequacy in the face of both personal and social crises. This perfectly calibrated first song being called “Didn’t Know What I Was in For,” a ridiculously apt first-song title, is just sparklers on the cake. (As is the background fact that it actually is the first tune Bridgers and Oberst ever wrote together, thinking it a one-off at the time.)

The second song, “Sleepwalkin’,” ratchets up the rhythm and density to establish that Better Oblivion Community Center really is a band, or wants to sound like one, rather than like a pastel-washed vehicle for wistful acoustic girl-boy duets—which is what people might have guessed a Bridgers-Oberst duo album would be. (One of the reasons they’ve given for the surprise release was to prevent such false expectations from accumulating.) While the rhythm section, keyboards, and lead guitars aren’t always in the same hands throughout the album, guests from groups such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Dawes, and Autolux are given the space by the duo and co-producer Andy LeMaster to make good on those band ambitions.

This is all crucial second-track business, and it clears the way for Track 3, “Dylan Thomas”—the hit, at least in this album’s imaginary universe. It’s a full-on, world-turned-upside-down rock-out (at least in a kind of mid-’90s Pavement rock-out way), a landscape Bridgers’ and Oberst’s voices bound through in tandem, with a few stink bombs lobbed in the direction of the White House, but with a greater preoccupation with how any of us can hold together when it seems we’re collectively “taking a shower at the Bates Motel.” I haven’t been able to get past it without two or three replays each time. It’s the song BOCC premiered on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show Wednesday night, which had the host running over wide-eyed and broad-grinned afterwards. Track 3, of course, is the ideal spot for such a coup, consolidating the promise of the first two tracks.

That “Dylan Thomas” high sets up Track 4 to bring down the mood with the record’s saddest ballad, and Track 5 (the end of side one, I assume, on vinyl) as the time to throw in a tight synth-and-percussion-based stylistic outlier (titled, appropriately, “Exception to the Rule”), a bit reminiscent of Bright Eyes’ 2005 electronic album Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Track 6, opening the hypothetical side two, is the one that actually is a wistful pastel acoustic duet, “Chesapeake,” breaking the pattern by finally playing to type. The rest of the album alternates between its more pastoral and more raucous modes. It closes with Track 10, “Dominos”—the sole non-Bridgers-Oberst composition, a cover of a rather incredible recent song by the obscure Birmingham, Alabama, musician Taylor Hollingsworth—and here the production touches on the album’s whole sonic range until, after the final lyric (“there’s always tomorrow”), it rises and strides off the stage in a kind of electric-marching-band fanfare.

All this subliminal formal elegance helps explain why I find the Better Oblivion Community Center record so addictively listenable. It’s mirrored, too, by the project’s location in the sequence of the two artists’ own career arcs. Loved and disliked by critics and listeners in equal measures for his prolix lyrics, political outspokenness, and yelpy vocal passion for years after his precocious emergence as a teenager in the turn-of-the-century indie scene, Oberst faltered through both artistic overproduction and apparent lifestyle excesses later in the 2000s. Then, in 2014, he was accused of sexual assault, though the allegations were later withdrawn and his accuser formally affirmed that they’d been “100 percent false.” Still recovering from that scandal, Oberst then lost his older brother in 2016 to the effects of alcoholism—the clear subject of that wrenching Track 4 ballad here, the Elliott Smith–esque “Service Road.” While he came back with a pair of strong projects, 2016’s Ruminations and 2017’s Salutations, few beyond his core fan base were listening.

Bridgers, meanwhile, has found herself in her early 20s—not unlike the younger Oberst—as the sudden focus of stratospheric expectations, after the introspective intensities of her first album and the charismatic-supergroup effect of her alliance with fellow young feminist songwriters Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker in Boygenius, whose self-titled EP made many 2018 year-end critics’ lists, including mine. Fortunate as she is, it can’t be easy to bear all that scrutiny at 24, particularly the pressure to produce an even better second solo album.

Bridgers and Oberst met through L.A. music circles, Oberst contributed vocals to the song “Would You Rather” on Stranger in the Alps, and they toured together in the United States and Europe before they discovered their songwriting rapport. In brute cultural capital terms, Bridgers gets to collaborate with one of her own teenage musical heroes, while Oberst benefits from the halo of her au courant–ness, but what’s striking in interviews is their easy joking banter and clear artistic sympathies. The name Better Oblivion Community Center seems to express a fond wish that some kind of humble social solidarity might at least brighten the mood of the onrushing apocalypse (their Dead Oceans label conducted a low-level advance campaign by pretending to market BOCC as a Scientology-esque New Age healing racket). But it’s given the weight of reality by the mere fact of a young female artist and a 38-year-old male veteran joining in an apparent partnership of complete artistic equality, with no symptoms of Svengalism or other power imbalances. Given all the stories of abuse and harassment and other outrages over the past several years, it was becoming hard to believe such a thing was possible—and so it’s perhaps not just the album’s sequencing but its placement within the events of the outside world that makes it so beguiling.

The pair’s creative compatibility is underlined by the way that for much of the album they sing in unison, on the same words and melodies—Oberst’s creaky speak-singing and Bridgers’ hydrogen-buoyant clarity blending into a kind of third, shared voice that is the signature sound of BOCC. Similarly, in their songwriting, their lyrical voices meld so completely that with rare exceptions it’s difficult to guess who wrote which lines. This effect relieves both artists of the frequent assumption that their songwriting is always confessional or autobiographical. The observations in the songs are often sharp and specific—“little moments of purpose,” as the duo sings on “My City”—but they’re delivered through personae that blur into one another, spectral characters that often seem to trade positions and perspectives mid-song; as they sing on “Dylan Thomas,” you might find out that “that ghost is just a kid in a sheet.”

And that might be BOCC’s last, best trick: While there’s no lack of depth, insights, and urgency to most of these songs, there’s a lightness to them nonetheless. The two artists are pursuing their usual high ambitions, but not alone, and still on a kind of holiday from their regular gigs. Save for “Service Road,” an exception that perhaps acts as a kind of anchor to the rest, these songs can serve other functions than as grand personal statements. They can be dispatches from the community center at large, with a detachable phone number at the bottom in case you want to volunteer (that number, incidentally, being 785-433-5534). I can’t say as yet whether this album will keep sounding as indispensable as it does in these first couple of days of its existence. But when I feel myself sinking into the frosty ground cover of this dark and shutdown January, I want to hear from the kind of people who would write a song about a cemetery, “Forest Lawn,” and make the chorus “Since you went underground/ I’ve wanted to dig you out.” Who would end a song like “My City” on the line “Chasing love like an ambulance,” and hold that last syllable and note for 12 full seconds, in unison—am-bu-laaaaaaaaaaaaaaaance—like a siren wailing through the streets to find me, and put me exactly in the place that I belong.

Better Oblivion Community Center album cover.