Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock already shouted it loudly in 1988: “It takes two.” 31 years later, you can easily apply this saying to Better Oblivion Community Center, the new band of Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers. The LP of the same name by the songwriters duo has ten excellent alt-folk songs with a tragicomic wink.
Written by: Jasper Willems
Photos: David van Dartel
If Better Oblivion Community Center were a real place on earth, you wouldn't go there to understand the big questions of life. To underline that wink again: the project was announced under the guise of a prosaic self-help brochure with helpline. Bridgers: “We kind of see through the cliché that you have to learn to love yourself before you can love someone.”
The feeling that a record has been made especially for you – the listener – is rare. The word-of-mouth campaign surrounding Better Oblivion also slyly manipulates this sentiment: attentive fans could already grab the album a few months before its official release by filling out the survey. “It was Phoebe's idea,” Oberst reveals, pointing playfully at Bridgers.
Bridgers: “I think people are too concerned with how you package a record, even before they've even heard the record. My good friend Lucy Dacus (who co-founded boygenius with Bridgers and Julien Baker) told me that many labels at some point approached her with this same principle. “This is going to work, we curate little pieces of your personality and build a brand.”
“And by the time the record actually comes out, you've had enough of it,” sighs Oberst.
Mitski recently tweeted that artists often feel compelled in interviews to make "the creative process" more beautiful than it actually is. The honest answer: the artist often has no clear explanation for how a song is created. And that refreshing, sometimes awkward honesty crops up several times during the writing process between Bridgers and Oberst. “I can't remember by God which of us wrote which lyrics exactly,” Oberst chuckles. Bridgers: “This record is quite a misfire in that regard, haha. It's sometimes dangerous to think that music is something you can only make when you're completely manic.”
Better Oblivion Community Center is living proof of that: a pretty tight, heartwarming record with only good songs. Oberst and Bridgers seem to want to voluntarily hand over the reins in order to turn each song into a kind of loose symbiosis of snapshots and experiences. The stunning 'Chesapeake' is a good example of this: Bridgers' glazed voice takes the lead, Oberst's signature lament follows her softly. Together they evoke the memory of a concert in a desolate parking lot. Not exactly a romantic scenario: you imagine a collection of friends and acquaintances of the band, and maybe a handful of curious passers-by.
The last verse, apparently sung from the perspective of a sound engineer, cuts especially deep: “I was all covered in sound / When you asked me to turn it down / Didn't even think it was loud / Can you hear it now? ” You can imagine a clear situation between the lines: the artist apologizes for the loud sound and thus adopts an insecure and vulnerable position, while the audience is deeply touched. That friction is what makes the song so touching.
“Almost every song is some kind of exchange,” Oberst explains. “For example, Phoebe wrote 'Forest Lawn' about a graveyard in Glendale, California where she often hung out with friends as a teenager. I've never been there myself, but I liked to use my imagination with it. It's like we're initiating some kind of mind fusion.” Bridgers: “It's a fun superpower to present a random thought to Conor. He then tells a whole story around that.”
The fun of freehand writing radiates from every song. 'My City' shoots wonderfully out of the corner with a joint swipe. Deeper reflections are suspiciously disproved by spontaneous puns and inside jokes. Bridgers, for example, refers to the album cover of her debut Stranger In The Alps on 'Dylan Thomas' (They say you got to fake it / At least until you make it / That ghost is just a kid in a sheet). Both Oberst and Bridgers experienced the false pretense of fame and romance in pop music early in their careers. With Bright Eyes, Oberst had been making his way for almost a decade when, after the breakthrough album I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning, he forgot a waterfall of Bob Dylan comparisons. Bridgers couldn't avoid the old Dylan comparison either (it was her ex-boyfriend Ryan Adams who called Bridgers 'The Next Bob Dylan').
"Generally speaking, people project so much of themselves onto other artists. It's something you can't possibly control."
Both artists are now on good terms with artists who are considered rock legends. Oberst is a good acquaintance of Bruce Springsteen, and Bridgers recently recorded a song with one of her idols, Jackson Browne. The motto 'never meet your heroes' certainly does not apply. It even offers the necessary perspective, according to Bridgers. “I may be one of the few who thinks you should meet your heroes. It's harder to keep that myth alive once you get to know them as real people. I think that's positive. Even if your heroes turn out to be huge assholes, that too can be wonderfully sobering.” Oberst partly agrees with Bridgers. “Of course it depends on the type of interaction. But in general people project so much of themselves onto other artists. It's something you can't possibly control."
Oberst's previous album Ruminations did little good to his reputation as a professional pessimist. After health concerns and a false accusation of rape, he went into a negative spiral. Dubiously, that malaise resulted in his most beautiful, melancholy music in years. The songs are performed Dylan-style with only guitar, piano, harmonica and Oberst's voice, which here sounds even more bitter than usual. Ruminations is a traditional song record full of unvarnished confessions, which brutally disprove all romance. 'I met Lou Reed and Patti Smith / It didn't make me feel different', is a sentence on 'Next Of Kin', 'I guess I lost my innocence / way too long ago'. Try your best to listen to 'You All Loved Him Once' without a lump in your throat. It is Oberst's highly personal view of the sour tale after fame. The words hit like a bomb; you can't conduct much meaningful dialogue on it, but every sentence cuts to the bone. The silence on the other end of the line is no comfort to Oberst. On the next song, "Till St. Dymphna Kicks Us Out," he happily shakes off the hangover, looking for a soul mate in the pub.
He found that soul in Phoebe Bridgers. She is also not afraid to reveal her dirty laundry. She wrote "Motion Sickness" shortly after her brief relationship with Ryan Adams, and the lyrics leave little room for interpretation. “I hate you for what you did/And I miss you like a little kid/I faked it every time but that's alright I can hardly feel anything at all.” When Oberst first heard Bridgers' music, he felt the urge to contact Bridgers. That landmark couldn't be a coincidence, because the 24-year-old songwriter from Los Angeles had been a fan of Oberst and Bright Eyes for years. "Would You Rather" became their first duet. It is a moving song about suicide and family drama, in which Oberst takes the role as the listening ear: 'I'm a can on string / You're on the end'. With a primitive helpline and a brochure you may not solve the conflicts of this whole world problem, but you at least give shape to the inner human conflict.
Oberst: “The opening track 'Didn't Know What I Was In For' is about that conflict: people making small gestures on social media, and proudly posting that they are signing a petition. Slacktivism, as it is called. Such actions can sometimes seem quite complacent. It doesn't necessarily make a difference, other than the fact that it makes you feel better out of guilt. But that's actually a bullshit way of looking at the world. Tiny droplets of water affect everything you do. If you take enough small things, some kind of progression will come naturally.”
Well, maybe that's exactly where that romance lies: a small gesture can sometimes make a world of difference. After all, without all those tiny droplets of water, there can be no rainbow. "I'm carpooling to kingdom come / into the wild purgatory / Experiencing a magic rainbow / All you got to do is follow." Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.