Who can remember all the way back to January 24th of 2019? Was it sunny? Stormy? Ominously without weather? Unknown; HOWEVER, as has been written in the fading pages of history, there was a sudden surprise Thursday album drop. A full album of ten tracks. Out of nowhere.
Conor Oberst, almost two and a half decades into his prolific career, and Phoebe Bridgers, roughly two and a half years into her decidedly odd trajectory, came together as Better Oblivion Community Center in what’s most likely a one-off record (thus robbing all of those fledgling unnamed bands who had the super-catchy and totally memorable “Better Oblivion Community Center” at the top of their Name Our Band list…).
There was much to explore in this unexpected affair. What follows is a salacious and rumor-strewn account of the developments leading up to this Event and the resultant musical production.
I. Bridgers Over Troubled Water
“It all started with Ryan Adams” is not a phrase that gets uttered often in this universe, but in the indie-meteoric rise of Phoebe Bridgers, it’s largely true. He served as an early champion, and disappointing hook-up, for the Platinum Being who was twenty years his junior. But rather than Time’s Upping him, she simply wrote a withering song to knock him into the oblivion of his own soul. Career intact, mind destroyed. [The previous sentence was written prior to the annihilation of Ryan Adams due his moronic need for an under-aged girl’s attention. So, yes, eventually Phoebe *did* add to the #MeToo-nami that washed him away, but the original sentence stands in that her first instinct was to crush his withered manhood with a blistering single instead. Goodbye, Ryan. We knew ye all too well.]
From there, her career exploded like lightning from a cloud, i.e. fast and from unexpected directions. She released an über-well-received LP in late 2017, formed a “supergroup” with like-minded young songwriters in 2018, and… well, did everything other than further her own stand-alone solo career. She’s had two oddly presumptuous Christmas singles (Isn’t that supposed to be your I’m-Almost-Washed-Up-Now move?), a song mash-up duet with Noah Gundersen, a cover of a Manchester Orchestra song, and several “Featuring Phoebe Bridgers” credits with bands ranging from Mercury Rev to Lord Huron to random dudes who supposedly play music, I guess. She could be following the Emmylou Harris playbook (in fact, she provided a cover of “Prayer in Open D” to an Emmylou Harris tribute album), but Phoebe doesn’t quite have that unmistakable Emmylou voice and, more importantly, unlike Emmylou, she’s a songwriter at heart.
Oberst himself isn’t new to the Phoebe scene, as he hopped aboard her first album to provide a depressing little on-the-choruses-only duet, with fun zingers about “a suicide pact of [their] family and friends.” He’s a youthful 39, compared to Ryan Adams at 40, but clearly Pheeb’s got a type.
Scrawny, ragged white guys, look out! You might be Phoebe’s next partner…
So why this team-up? Is it business? Ms. Bridgers has 2.7 million monthly Spotify streamers as of March 2019; Mr. Oberst doesn’t quite make that number when you add up all the streamers for “Conor Oberst,” “Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band,” “Bright Eyes,” and “Desaparecidos” (He’s always happy to diversify his streaming revenue, for sure.). But neither of them are dwindling in obscurity.
That being said, Phoebe Bridgers is a master of the current streaming platform business model, which is essentially to get out as much material as you can, as often as you can, and keep those listens coming. That certainly explains her bizarre sets of singles and one-offs. But does it explain this lingering relationship with Conor Oberst?
II. Old Man Conor and the M.P.D.G.
It’s a tale as old as time. A man approaches middle age, begins settling into the fog of a dreary and listless future, goes back home to Nebraska to record a lovely but stark record called Ruminations, and wonders how to carry on through a glum and downwardly-drifting life. As if on cue, there’s the arrival of the classic and unfailing lazy writerly archetype: the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Which of these is a musician, and which ones JUST MAKE YOU FEEL MORE ALIVE THAN YOU’VE EVER FELT BEFORE?!
Ruminations was recorded in February of 2016; Conor and Phoebe met in the land of imaginary rebirths (Los Angeles) in the summer of that same year, when he saw her perform and everything changed… Before long, he was soaking up the SoCal rays and spending most of his time “hanging out with Phoebe and her friends” as he’s quoted in a very telling interview with Rolling Stone. He continued, “It felt good to be around people who were not jaded” in the typical semi-coded language of a man who can’t say in public that he draws his most powerful creative energy from the attention of younger women. French society was built on this premise, and so is Conor’s current life. [But not THAT young, Ryan Adams…]
Phoebe is fresh and new, energetic, inspired, and sunny (apparently, although you’d never know it based on her morose songwriting). Her Instagram handle is @_fake_nudes_ which is both a funny/quirky choice and one that’s comfortable with its sexuality, fitting in with her overall openness about past shitty relationships. She’s not afraid to wear a “Suck My Dick” t-shirt to a Rolling Stone photoshoot. All of the energy of youth and reinvention… She is a classic, IRL M.P.D.G.
“But what about Conor’s wife?!” some concerned Reddit thread inevitably spouted. Well, we could all tear apart the lyrics on his post-Phoebe Salutations album, but I’m sure Reddit already has that covered. No mere wife can stand up to the ultimate life-bringing power of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. This is especially true when the aforementioned wife’s only clear appearance in a song includes lyrics like: “Corina, Corina / Where did you sleep last night? / You come back around this morning / Clothes don’t fit you right.”
“But only a FOOL would think Conor was writing about his own feelings. We all know he writes from all kinds of perspectives, maaaaaaaaan!” is the line of attack from another set of Reddit posters, invariably. They invoke The Great Myth: that art comes from the ether, that magician artists pull concrete from clouds overhead, that they are the distant gods of their own created universes.
To be fair, in order for art to continue, The Great Myth must exist. Artists need to have the permission to say, “I made it all up!” while most of us know that the best work that hits the hardest comes from lived reality. The names are changed, the events are transformed, but without something of our experience dripping steadily into the words, there’s nothing but clichés and poorly sketched cartoons. We can tell the difference, whether consciously or not.
So when Conor sings “My wife takes a vacation / One she can’t afford / I go fishin’ the alleys / For someone to escort / No, I don’t mind the money / It beats betting on sports / And though it might get expensive / It’s cheaper than divorce” in “Too Late to Fixate” or “His wife doesn’t talk / Hates when he’s gone / Counts every skirt in his new entourage” in “Gossamer Thin”, We the Believers of The Great Myth are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. They’re characters, after all!
Maybe so. But Phoebe Bridgers blew into his life, reinvigorated the guy’s sense of musical joy, and it was all consummated on national TV, during a live but choreographed performance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Look at the fun they’re having! Little effects pop up, like a hotline phone number to their made-up Community Center or the cutaway to the two of them watching from the audience and feigning shock at being on the big screen. Twee Town, USA! The song itself is… not particularly fun, but this joyful spectacle is a helluva way to roll out your little musical project, eh?
III. And This Is What Transpired…
Press play. A strummy, one note guitar figure begins, followed by the arrival of Phoebe’s solo voice — You can almost hear the crowd exploding into applause at the appearance of their new queen materializing out of the mist, enough applause and whistling that it conceals the flatness of the guitar line and how the vocal melody demands an additional note that the background composition doesn’t provide. It’s a little over a minute into the song when the chorus hits and the Phoebe/Conor unison vocals first reveal themselves. Her voice, full of lightness and air, and his voice, full of throat and glottal chaos. We quickly realize that this isn’t going to be some enchanting amalgamation of voices, like a Simon and his Garfunkel. This is more of a Fiona Apple and Johnny Cash kind of scenario.
We *do* get some excellent lyrics, like the heartfelt sarcasm of “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.” This would be perfectly at home in any Oberst ditty, along with the grim closing lines: “Sit on the couch and think about / how living’s just a promise that I made.”
But vocally, Conor isn’t adding any qualities that we’d particularly want. His ragged monotone cuts scars into Phoebe’s polish. Where his voice lends desperation and unvarnished emotion to his own songs, it croaks out knives into the flawless melancholy atmosphere that Phoebe offers us. (All too often, his vocals are left naked while her voice gets a comfortable amount of reverb. For the best example, check out “My City” at the 3:30 mark, as they belt out “Chasing love like an ambulance” together — Phoebe lifts off and gets blended into the stratosphere while Conor is left to bleat like a pissed off goat.) The first track is one that I would’ve given to Phoebe for LP2.
And so it goes throughout the album. Rarely do they complement each other with sound, however much they might have blended their words together into these songs. But each track has a tendency to be better suited to one of them or the other. Early single “Dylan Thomas” is mostly a Conor affair, “Service Road” is pure Oberst, “Exception to the Rule” sounds like an outtake from Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, and “My City” could’ve been a Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band track.
The biggest problem with labeling which songs belong to Phoebe Bridgers is: what *is* a Phoebe Bridgers song now? What would a second album sound like at this point? Would it sound like the driving beat of “Sleepwalkin’”? Would it sound like the simmering tension of “Big Black Heart”? We haven’t been given the chance to find out yet, so the puzzle piece of who could’ve done which song best on their own will have to wait until Ms. Bridgers finds herself alone in a recording studio again. *If* she plans to do that.
There’s also a half-cooked lyrical quality to some of this set, as if being co-writers gave them both permission to drop only partially realized songs onto a disc and not worry about credit or blame. I don’t think either of them would’ve released songs as half-baked and generic as “Exception to the Rule” and “Big Black Heart” on their own, so why are these tracks qualified for this collection? That is at the heart of a critical reading of Better Oblivion Community Center’s output here. The simplest question: “Why tho?”
But that tends to be a largely misguided critical direction in these content-heavy times. The *larger question* at the heart of these types of projects is: “Why not tho?”
Regardless, what we’ve gotten is a collection of songs that have a multitude of strengths. Anything from these two songwriters is a gift; let’s not mistake it for anything else. Criticism aside, there are lines and feelings within this album that are very much worthwhile for your ears to experience. “Chesapeake” is as pleasing as the gushing reviews claim it to be. “Dominos” is a brilliant tune that was borrowed from Conor’s Mystic Valley Band member, Taylor Hollingsworth. Hopefully some of the cash these two have swept in will trickle down to him; after all, he’s given them the most complete and refined song of the bunch.
[Memo: Given that liner notes aren’t really a thing anymore in the streaming age, is it even fair to put a random cover song into your album full of originals? How many people are going to figure out that the Phoebe/Conor writing team didn’t come up with “Dominos” themselves? How many people will praise them for the lyrics written by a guy who only has 613 monthly listeners on Spotify? It might be time for a more complex metadata package for cover tunes…]
All-in-all, this whirlwind musical romance has delivered unto us nine sketches and a cover that we wouldn’t have had otherwise. Did it prevent either of these artists from bringing us a masterpiece of solo work? We’ll never know. Will they marry each other and become the Forever Better Community Center? Time will tell.
They’ve made the journey fun for themselves and fun for us speculators as well. At this point in the music business game, I suppose that’s all we can really ask for…
Rating: $6.87 out of 10.
-David C. Casey