Considering the relevant profiles of the two people involved, the release of Better Oblivion Community Center has been curiously low-key. On the left, Phoebe Bridgers, one of the most vaunted songwriters of her generation, with a wildly successful debut album already under her belt. On the right, Conor Oberst, the Godfather of Americana indie who, as Bright Eyes, paved the way for a new procession of sad-eyed men armed with a fringe, a guitar and some emotional folk songs.
Even that name seems designed to draw attention away from the two stars – instead of Phoebe & Conor or Brighter Bridgers, it’s Better Oblivion Community Center. It’s not the greatest of names – in fact, it sounds like something a man in his mid-40s having a midlife crisis may call his artisan coffee shop that he’s just set up with a redundancy payout – so it’s a good job that the music is as you would expect. That is to say, pretty special.
This is very much an equal opportunities collaboration – in the same way that David Byrne and St Vincent drew upon each others strengths to produce something brand new for their Love This Giant album, it’s the same with Bridgers and Oberst. There’s nothing that’s going to scare off fans of either artist, and both of them have equal amounts of time on lead vocals. Like Bridgers’ other ‘supergroup’, boy genius with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, it’s a very democratic exercise.
So although there’s plenty of surprises contained within Better Oblivion Community Center – the barrages of noise that erupt on Big Black Heart, and the welcome appearance of Yeah Yeah Yeah‘s Nick Zinner’s incendiary guitar on Dylan Thomas – there’s also a comforting familiarity throughout. Opening track Didn’t Know What I Was In For sounds exactly how you’d expect a song by Bridgers and Bright Eyes to sound: achingly beautiful with some gorgeous harmonies between the pair.
The tempo may be more upbeat that expected too – Dylan Thomas comes close to being a breakthrough pop hit with a superb surging chorus, and Exception To The Rule is built on a wall of muddy synth keyboard riffs. Yet it’s mostly as slow and hushed as Bridgers’ Stranger In The Alps: songs like the gentle lament of Forest Lawn and the hazy Chesapeake (the dreamlike state of which makes sense when you discover that Oberst was tripping on mushrooms when he wrote it) could easily belong on Bridgers’ debut.
Sometimes Oberst takes the lead, as on the sad. lilting Service Road while at others it’s Bridgers at centre stage – the finest moments though come when the two take equal billing, such as the aforementioned Dylan Thomas or Sleepwalkin’, where the duo’s chemistry produce some spine-tingling results.
Whether Better Oblivion Community Center is just a delightful one-off before the pair go back to their day jobs remains to be seen (although the fact that they’ll be touring this year indicates there could be more to come), but this is a ‘supergroup’ refreshingly free of ego and filled with supremely listenable songs.