Do you ever sit up late at night watching videos about how close we are to global catastrophe? Are you bothered by the creeping inevitability of death? Have you ever sat and read the Wikipedia page for predictions for the day the world will end and contemplate your own existential meaning? If you answered yes to any of these, Better Oblivion Community Center is the band for you! Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst’s new collaboration finds solace in nothingness and sees it as an excuse to indulge in the spectrum of life’s emotions.
Through some occasionally rock-tinged folk music, BOCC harmonize and recite poetry that tell stories and set scenes that are timeless and endless. It’s par for the course for both Oberst and Bridgers, but Better Oblivion Community Center at least seems like they’re exploring emotions through characters rather than just relying on their own life experiences. The stories often reflect aspects of loneliness, and Bridgers’ kind, soothing voice with Oberst’s often aged, sad voice show the range of loneliness. The moments they stray from this are usually the record’s most interesting moments but also elevate the record’s flaws. “Exception to the Rule” is a punchy, electronic number that is entirely distracting. BOCC really are their most powerful when the singers join together and sound like they’re guides taking you toward some sense of childlike existence that pains you to know once existed within you. The bare-nature of a track like “Chesapeake” enforces this feeling the way it feels when you first hear a great song when you’re so young and hear a record that you’re going to love for your entire life that you’ll never get again by the time you pass age 10.
While there’s certainly an ominous feeling setting over much of the songs on BOCC, the band can occasionally add a bounce. “My City” has the bounce of 60’s folk rock. Even while struggling with finding some sense of self, the two “wear a smile like camouflage,” and that’s reflected in the spring in the song’s step. “Dylan Thomas” is a rock song proper that serves as a scathing swing at the Trump Administration. The two sing:
“The cats are scared and feral
The flags on their lapels
The truth is anybody’s guess
These talking heads are saying,
“The king is only playing
A game for four-dimensional chess”
It reflects so much of the frustration and shows how monstrous we’ve come to look at the current administration and how it’s caused trauma on our nation’s collective mental health, forcing us all to “die like Dylan Thomas/A seizure on the barroom floor.”
This is an album built on a sense of paralysis, and it offers a soothing arc in finding a way to let being stuck manifest itself in different forms. The album opens with characters working dead-end jobs to survive, but it goes into “Sleepwalker” that seems like a couple struggling through addiction, only to be lead to the sweet love song “Forest Lawn” by the back-half of the record, where the two fantasize about being buried next to each other. “Forest Lawn” is the record’s emotional centerpiece. As Oberst references “Que Sera, Sera,” it seems that the couple that BOCC are portraying have finally found some sense of peace, as they discuss being buried in LA’s largest cemetery to be utterly ignored by teenagers forever. The album ends with “Dominoes,” a song that builds a la “November Rain” where it seems the two are narrating a figurative death of sorts: “If you’re not feeling ready/there’s always tomorrow.”
Death is scary. Living can be scary. We all face so many tribulations, and the stories that Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst tell throughout Better Oblivion Community Center address so many of these fears and feelings. While this record can certainly serve as an existential coping mechanism, it also just shows us that we all deserve a stronger nothing.