Better Oblivion Community Center


Singer-songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst kept a noble secret before the release of their self-titled Better Oblivion Community Center album back in January. With no build-up whatsoever, the record came out of the blue, something that I loved, especially given just how immensely enjoyable a listen it is. For sure, it’s my favourite new release of the year to date.

Fans of Bridgers or Oberst’s solo work would perhaps not have been too surprised by the musical styles on the album, though. The timeless arrangements and dazzling phrasing are nothing new for either the Californian or the Nebraskan, but these last few months as a listener have given many moments where I have felt that what they’ve created together must be a result of each one upping their respective games to new heights in order to impress the other.

Some faces in the stage shadows at tonight’s sold-out Ritz are familiar to me from seeing Bridgers’ band previously. The lighting is mostly kept dark and moody, which shows off the effects-laden, community-centre backdrop that somehow brings to mind the Hawkins Middle School from TV’s Stranger Things. I don’t know what it is, but there’s some weird stuff going on in there this evening. The trippy wellness voiceover for stage walk-on was the first clue to that.

Bridgers is a huge fan of Elliott Smith and I think it’s from his records that she has learned to appreciate double-tracked vocals in the studio (as used on her debut solo album, Stranger in the Alps) as well as simultaneous singing when working with Oberst. Both vocalists take the opportunity to sing alone plenty of times tonight too, but it’s most special for me when their voices overlap and Oberst’s monotonous tones are sweetened by Bridgers.

These songs are just so good. Album opener ‘Didn’t Know What I Was in For’ and lead-off promotional track ‘Dylan Thomas’, for instance, are packed with elegantly crafted lines. The former is my personal favourite tonight and manages to express the feelings of guilt that people can have when thinking ‘I’m a good person but I could be doing more to help those less fortunate than me’ in an age when reminders are everywhere. Apathy also creeps into the song. The guy at the end of Bob Dylan’s ‘Black Diamond Bay’ is bored of yet “another hard-luck story” on the TV news and goes to grab another beer from the fridge, whereas the woman in the Bridgers/Oberst song “says she cries at the news but doesn’t really”. At least the Dylan character is honest about his apathy, I suppose.

Both singers play guitar for more or less the entirety of the set, but a highlight of the night is when the beach balls and deckchairs come out for the electronica piece ‘Exception to the Rule’, making me imagine a pre-tour planning meeting: ‘We might as well get the deckchairs out and chill when we perform that song because there are no guitars on it. All we have to do is sing’.

Bridgers and Oberst don’t have that much to say to us tonight, but for me the crowd engagement is just right. Oberst skilfully turns Mother’s Day and Bridgers’ mistake about it (we don’t celebrate it here in the UK today, unlike in the US) into a humorous theme for the night. I have hinted above that he’s not my favourite singer in the world, but the same could be said for many of my favourite songwriters, plus tonight I am won over by his charisma.

This evening Bridgers and Oberst’s guitars are mixed a little lower than on record, giving greater prominence to the rhythm section, although I’m unconvinced by some of the metallic, industrial percussion, which is thankfully brief and infrequent. The chorus of ‘Sleepwalkin’’ is sped up live, and ‘Big Black Heart’ is the band’s chance to rock out. On that note, the performance of Bridgers’ ‘Funeral’, sung primarily by Oberst, is remarkable, with the song transformed from the eerily atmospheric and melancholic ballad on Stranger in the Alps into a heavy-metal thrash. It’s pleasing to hear such experimentation, and the presence also of a brand-new song, ‘Little Trouble’, suggests perhaps that the band has an exciting future beyond the short term.

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.