I am always wary of what can happen when high profile artists decide to join forces as a super group, super duo, or super superwhatever-you-want-to-call-it. Sometimes the result is magnificent and impactful while sometimes, it more often than not turns out to be instantly forgettable and mercifully short lived. So, which one does Better Oblivion Community Center (Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst) plan to be with their self titled debut album on Dead Oceans? I didn’t know what to expect after catching their debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in January. I liked the notion that they kept things quiet and then, when they were ready, unleashed their project on an unsuspecting public. There was no build up or sense of expectation of what this collaboration would yield and maybe that is why it succeeds on so many levels.
The album starts off with “Didn’t Know What I Was In For” with Bridgers’ softly hypnotic voice and acoustic guitar drawing you in. The vocals double up when Oberst joins the chorus and it sets the tone for what follows. The song builds vocally before the drums kick in and punch it up a bit. Like so many tracks on the album it captures the moment and not a grand over arching story, a brief focus on the now. “Dylan Thomas” is the upbeat, more fun sounding song on the self-titled debut, until you really dig into the lyrics. Don’t let the jangly guitar work fool you as the song elusively undermines the initial feelings of optimism. The guitar explodes towards the back half of the track courtesy of Yeah Yeah Yeah’s guitarist Nick Zinner, and the song is the better for it. “Service Road” with Oberst on lead paints a vivid and vibrant picture with lines like “a pile of filthy coins clinched in his hand.” Bridgers whispery vocals compliment the track perfectly. “Chesapeake,” easily one of my favorite songs in the collection takes me back to fleeting moments, those forgotten and hazily remembered instances, so thin they almost seem dreamlike at times. I honestly never want this song to stop playing. After six or seven listens in a row I move on to my other favorite track “Forest Lawn.” Oberst is the main voice on this one, delicately and nimbly moving through the track. Wonderfully paced, it immediately pulls you into the tale and never loses its lilting intensity. Amongst the ten tracks that make up this stunning debut it is the alpha dog moment and we, as listeners, are the better for it.
“Bick Black Heart” shows off the power of Bridgers’ voice when she explodes on the back half of the song. The fuzzy, feedback drenched guitar work and pounding drums from Autolux drummer Carla Azar provide the most visceral, raw and exposed moment the album has to offer. I went back and listened to the record numerous times over the last seven days to let it sink in and make sure my initial opinion still held up. It did and then some. I have never been a huge Bright Eyes/Oberst fan but felt a maturity and focus on this record that I haven’t in previous efforts. Bridgers shines alongside an artist who obviously influenced her style. Her delivery often times outshines Obersts yet it doesn’t come across as one-upmanship, instead it feels like a collaboration of two talents where both artists are free to just be. I am not sure what the future holds but I think the pairing of Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers works on so many levels that I hope we will get a chance to discuss the merits of their sophomore album.