Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers on Their Haunting New Band, Better Oblivion Community Center

Music Features Better Oblivion Community Center
Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers on Their Haunting New Band, Better Oblivion Community Center

Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst come from the same musical orbit. One could even argue, the two songwriters—age 24 and 38 respectively—are like long-lost musical siblings. Though at vastly different points in their careers, both musicians know how to crush and revive listeners with inspired woe, romantic poignancy and their instantly recognizable, consoling pipes. Bridgers’ breakout 2017 debut LP, Stranger in the Alps, and her recent work with critical darling supergroup, boygenius, has safely reserved her position in the club of young singer-songwriters poised for rosy careers. Oberst has dozens of records to his name, most notably with the angsty indie outfit Bright Eyes, as a solo artist and with bands like Desaparecidos and Monsters of Folk.

If there’s anything that the past few years of volatile politics has taught us, it’s that our future is uncertain, so it’s best to cross off those long-held goals off your bucket list before we descend into whatever ominous abyss swallows us whole. Thankfully, the stars aligned just in time for Bridgers and Oberst to write, record and surprise-drop a haunting new album together for a brand new project: Better Oblivion Community Center—which really is their band name and not actually the name of a utopian old folks home. Like Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett’s Lotta Sea Lice back in 2017, the self-titled album from Better Oblivion Community Center brings out the eccentricities of both musicians while emanating a carefree, sentimental warmth.

“I don’t think we really knew it was going to be a full record or project,” says Oberst. “It was actually funny. We were joking that the vinyl kept getting bigger. We’re like, ‘Oh maybe we’ll make a seven-inch’ and then we wrote a couple more songs and we were like, ‘Maybe it will be a ten-inch.’ And finally, we were like, ‘I guess this is going to be a full record.’”

Bridgers and Oberst weren’t complete strangers before this record. Oberst and Bridgers have toured together and Oberst contributed vocals to Bridgers’ song, “Would You Rather.” Bridgers met Oberst while opening for him in 2016 on his solo tour in Los Angeles and after the show, Oberst asked for a copy of her record. “I was immediately struck by her voice,” says Oberst. “There are not a lot of people whose voice stops you in your tracks like that.”

Rather than each of them writing songs on their own and showing them to each other, Bridgers and Oberst wrote this record together in the same room. “Obviously, there are differences between what we do,” says Oberst. “The essence of it is the same, which is to have songs that have some kind of universal, not to sound too highfalutin, but a universal truth to them where people hear them, even if it’s a personal song, relate it to their lives and find something useful in it hopefully. I think when we were writing, the biggest difference I notice is Phoebe is a little more of a perfectionist than I am. I’ll write a lot of stuff quickly and she’s a bit more thoughtful and she was definitely like, ‘Ok let’s step back from this and try to make it better.’ I think that helped the writing process because there was another person who I really respect that was pushing it forward to be better than it would’ve been if it was just me alone in a room.”

The two are avid fans of each other—speaking far more endearingly of each other’s work than their own. “Ooh I have many favorite songs in Conor’s catalogue. I think my favorite as of late, is ‘Mamah Borthwick,’ off his last record,” says Bridgers.

“Obviously for me, I love her whole first record,” Oberst responds. “I’m kinda partial to her new song that she’s working on. I don’t know the name of it. [Phoebe] keeps calling it ‘Garden Song.’”

Both musicians are experienced collaborators at this point and didn’t feel the pressure of writing and recording with that mutual appreciation for each other’s work. “I feel like it’s the opposite of a challenge or pressure,” says Bridgers. “I put a lot of pressure on myself for solo music. It can be isolating. It’s really fun too, but it’s also relaxing to know that someone else you really respect gives just as much of a fuck about it being good.”

Better Oblivion Community Center is an unsurprisingly tender, affecting excursion. Its largely upbeat instrumentation ebbs and flows with understated folky strums and scintillating keyboards, and the occasional ray of buoyant rock ’n’ roll peeks out just when you need some lighthearted relief from their lyrics. Oberst’s low voice is slightly rough around the edges, not quite weary enough to resemble someone with a thousand stories in one howl, but with just enough of a ruffled tone to add more emotional weight to the lyrics. Bridgers’ voice is like a grand, flowing waterfall—gorgeous on its face, but you’d be foolish to underestimate its sheer force. Her vocals are capable of suddenly evolving into a thunderous tidal wave, and perhaps her most lethal vocal state is her devastating tsunami of gloom.

Though many male-female vocal duos lean heavily on duets, this pair elected to skirt that norm by singing mostly in unison and in harmony rather than engaging in the sometimes cheesy call and response. “From the beginning, we were like, ‘It would be cool to do something where it wasn’t obvious, like we go back and forth,’” says Bridgers. “It always felt like a band, so for the most part, we were like, ‘We should sing in unison’ and then I sing harmony, usually, but I made Conor sing some harmony to mix it up. We had a good time deciding who sang what. A lot of it emerged during the writing process too, just what we naturally sang.”

“I felt like it was cooler that way,” Oberst chimes in, “to have our voices together as much as possible.”

Oberst also mentions their desire to dodge the folky troubadour stamp by making a dynamic record with several sonic reference points. Though much of the record could still loosely fall into the folk camp, there are moments that you wouldn’t expect from Oberst and Bridgers. The throbbing electro keyboards of “Exception to the Rule,” the fuzzy rock surge at the end of “Big Black Heart” and the psychedelic guitar swells on “My City” all represent a venture into new frontiers. It would also be unfair to overlook the prolonged vocal note at the end of “My City,” which sees Oberst and Bridgers hold an impassioned note for a face-melting 12 seconds (Bridgers has even wildly neared the 15-second mark when performing her own track “Motion Sickness”).

The two are also particularly fond of their fiery closing vocals on “Big Black Heart,” which is the pinnacle of reckless abandon on this record. “I have to credit Conor with that,” says Bridgers. “I had little ideas for that floating around and it was pretty mellow. And then Conor was like, ‘You need a fucking emo outro!’ That was the first time I screamed on the record, so yeah, I was immediately pumped.”

“The outro of the song was ripe for making a bigger, more explosive sound,” Oberst adds. “I think Phoebe has a really cool scream that she doesn’t utilize as much.”

The most unusual cut “Exception to the Rule” almost didn’t make the album because its initial guitar configuration just didn’t flatter the track. “We totally forgot about that song,” says Bridgers. “It was one of the first ones we wrote and we tried to fucking record it on GarageBand and we’re both—sorry Conor—horrible, horrible engineers. I can’t work a computer program to save my life. GarageBand was literally made for 12-year-olds with laptops.”

It turns out their producer Andy LeMaster was the mastermind behind the album version. “That one was, musically, his baby,” explains Oberst. “We definitely knew we wanted it to not be guitar-centric and stuff. He’s the one that threw down the pulsing keyboard thing.”

On the acoustic guitar-backed album opener, “I Didn’t Know What I Was in For,” they don’t pull their punches when it comes to candid emotional intensity. They emphatically sing in retrospect, “I didn’t know what I was in for / When I signed up for that run / There’s no way I’m curing cancer / But I’ll sweat it out / I feel so proud now for all the good I’ve done.”

Both have been touring and recording relentlessly through the years and the track’s contemplative, self-destructive leanings are understandable, but no less soul-shattering (“When I laid out in the sun / You get burned for being honest / I’ve really never done / Anything for anyone”).

Lyrically, Better Oblivion Community Center is bursting with sentimentality—whether it’s nostalgia for a past romance, a brief memory that still resonates or the romanticism of an idyllic American town—and perhaps that’s why this record feels so familiar on a spiritual level. There’s a frustration that relationships aren’t as simple or happy-go-lucky as they are in movies. There are personal insecurities, complex hoops to jump through and deep ethical questions that start to gnaw at you as you get older, and this album starts to wade through those waters while celebrating the euphoric moments that keep us afloat. Though these moments can’t be dusted off and relived, Bridgers and Oberst are skilled wielders of nostalgia—knowing full well of its magical, near immortal qualities.

When they aren’t basking in the powerful glory of nostalgia or delivering witty quips and rich vignettes, they dig into the one thing that brings us all back down to earth (or buried underneath its surface)—death. With lines throughout the album like, “Living’s just a promise that I made,” “Good men die like dogs” and “If we’re going somewhere I’m ready / If it’s just dirt I’m not,” Better Oblivion Community Center doesn’t beat around the bush. Both have do-si-doed with the grim reaper in their songwriting before and though it’s not necessarily a morbid record, there are obvious and subtle allusions to death throughout. “I feel like I’ve written about death maybe too much,” says Oberst. I don’t know what that says about us,”

“That we should make a record!” Bridgers replies with a laugh.

One of the most blatant references to death is “Forest Lawn.” Juxtaposed by a delicate, campfire-like arrangement, the song’s chorus takes mourning someone’s death to a literal whole new level (“Since you went underground / I’ve wanted to dig you out”). The title is also the name of a Los Angeles cemetery, and despite the fact that most people have despondent recollections of their intermittent trips to cemeteries, Bridgers had a different experience at that particular graveyard. “I still have to take Conor, but I used to go hang out there like a shithead. Forest Lawn is one of the only places in L.A. where it’s expansive green, and I would go hang out there and smoke cigarettes with my shithead friends when we were seniors in high school. We’d watch the other kids play hacky sack. We’d be like, ‘Oh my god what shitheads’ and then we were like, ‘Oh wait we’re the same.’”

Despite his Nebraska upbringing, Oberst has weirdly similar memories. “Phoebe told me she did that when she was a kid and stuff. There’s something about that image of innocent young teenagers partying in a graveyard that’s funny to me. I know in Omaha, kids did that same shit in another cemetery. Somehow that’s a universal thing that happens everywhere.”

On “Dylan Thomas,“ they even plant an indirect Trump reference. Throughout his presidential campaign, both the right-wing media and his supporters claimed Trump was playing four-dimensional chess—basically a well-orchestrated, strategic long game that positions him as a much smarter figure than his speeches and interviews would suggest. The pair sings, “These talking heads keep saying / The king is only playing / A game of four dimensional chess.” Bridgers says of the inspiration behind the track, “I heard a Reply All episode about four-dimensional chess, and then we started talking about it and then we started writing it, which is so funny. It’s political-leaning even if it’s just your personal experience with what’s going on in the world.”

Speaking of Trump and the American heartland that supported him, the record is something of a love affair with quaint American towns. One could imagine this record being a fitting soundtrack to Sharp Objects with its sinister, picturesque and distinctly American beauty. You might even envision Grant Wood’s American Gothic, but with Bridgers and Oberst taking the place of the somber couple—looking a bit more smiley and choosing an acoustic guitar as their weapon of choice. Songs like “Service Road,” “My City” and “Chesapeake” each reveal different facades and glimmers of America (“Trucks on the service road,” “This town is a monolith” and “We were the tallest person watching in Chesapeake / You put me on your shoulders / So I could see”).

Oberst says of his fascination with American towns, “I think that stuff is, for better or worse, vanishing a little bit as everyone sort of lives in the same place nowadays. I like the idea of everywhere you go, there’s little stories to be told, and I think of the first song, the person working at the pool, or on ‘Chesapeake,’ going to a rock concert and seeing a sad person playing to no one. That stuff is happening everywhere and in every town.”

Despite some of the harrowing heartache in these lyrics, there’s still joy to be found in this record whether it’s the plucky ebullience of “Dylan Thomas,” the uplifting sonics of “Sleepwalkin’” or possibly the most cheery, singalong-worthy song about exhuming a corpse, “Forest Lawn.” “Maybe I have a low bar for what’s fun, but I feel like the record at least, musically, feels upbeat and, for lack of a better word, fun to me, at least compared to some of the other stuff I’ve done,” says Oberst. “Hopefully, it’s not homework to listen to it. Hopefully people will be pumping it in their cars and rolling down their windows.”

Bridgers and Oberst learned a lot about each other through the process and they’re leaving the door open for a return to the project. “I feel like [Conor] drops a lot of production knowledge on this record,” says Bridgers. “It was clear that [Conor] and Andy have a really cool shorthand with that stuff. Like, ‘Hey, what did we do on that thing?’ Like referencing drum machines and stuff. It’s not fair. [Conor] writes all the good songs, and [he] also has all the cool production ideas.”

“I think Phoebe has a really good sense of taking a song to a different, unexpected place,” says Oberst. “I really trust her sensibilities when it comes to what is tasteful or gonna be a cool, unusual thing to do in a song that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. It was fun to spitball different ideas and try stuff. For the first full record making it together, it was surprisingly comfortable and natural.”

Whether it’s the fictitious firm they reference on their band social media accounts or the album of the same name, Better Oblivion Community Center is a healing endeavor, and though the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the former, the latter is undoubtedly potent. They capture the serenity of a still lakefront, the spontaneous vigor of a thunderstorm, the lifelong, scenic memories of a childhood road trip and the peaks and troughs of relationships. The two tear-jerking singer/songwriters are at the peak of their powers here, and they’ve managed to distill the exhilaration of that one summer you hoped would last forever and the crackling warmth of a bonfire into 10 effortlessly touching tracks.

Better Oblivion Community Center is out now via Dead Oceans.

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