The opening chords to the debut album by Better Oblivion Community Center are clumsy and awkward but they evoke the lo-fi pasts and humble beginnings of the now-lauded songwriters Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers—the duo behind the band and their new self-titled record.
Bridgers and Oberst both began writing songs when they were children. While Bridgers is still very young, 24 to be exact, and blossomed into indie-pop stardom quickly for her solo work and bands like boygenius, Oberst is known for his many projects and albums over the years. His music deeply rooted in emo, punk, and folk, Oberst has played in influential bands like Park Ave., The Faint, Desaparecidos, and, of course, Bright Eyes.
Better Oblivion Community Center is their new project together that pays homage to both the past and present. While touching on their singer-songwriter roots, the music is taken into a direction influenced by the both of them seemingly equally, with the notes Bridger sings reaching highs and lows Oberst simply doesn’t have the vocal chops for. You can feel the musicians playing off one another, responding to their lyrics and forays into melody.
The first track on the record, “Didn’t Know What I Was in for,” hits this sweet spot perfectly, with charmingly satirical lyrics and Oberst’s backing vocals delightfully downplayed. Though the opener is quirky and a bit sad, the witty lyrics recall humor and sorrow simultaneously, in a unified combination of their styles. As with most of their music, lyrics are king. There are references to Dylan Thomas, the homeless holding signs for help, and a friend who sells boutique clothing to the fashionably late.
On the other hand, the music varies from adolescent indie and folk to fuzzed-out garage rock to emo and even a moment of 80’s-influenced synth. Bridgers and Oberst layer harmonies, take turns singing lead and backup, and pass the lyrical baton back and forth to each other.
As the album progresses, however, it sinks into some songs that don’t offer much for me. The record began with its best and most earnest tracks, continuing through some really good songs and ending up in a lackluster place. Of the ten tracks on this first record, the significance of each one runs perfectly backwards.
While the opener of the album was the first song the two ever wrote together, “Sleepwalkin’” and the single “Dylan Thomas” are equally fantastic. The next third is also great, but the last four tracks of the album are almost completely forgettable. When the final track “Dominos” comes to an end, I’m happily intrigued by the return of stripped down guitar chords before realizing the stream has started over and gone back to the opening track.
Hearing the first seconds of the clumsily played guitar chords once again makes the listener want to listen to the album again, but while there are some amazing songs on it, others fall short—as if these were the only songs they had. The inception of the band was so fast that it leads to a complaint I have often.
Better Oblivion Community Center is almost a fully realized album, it is only a few details away. Trading a few songs in for better ones and rearranging the album could have made a world of difference. The collaboration between these songwriters is surely special, maybe next time around the band will go from good to great.