Over the past few months, whenever I have felt stressed or overwhelmed, I have turned to the soothing yet urgent tunes of the new band Better Oblivion Community Center. Read here about the artistic partnership responsible for their music and how their lyrics serve as a searing critique of modern American life.
Listening to Better Oblivion Community Center is like driving in the summer on an uncongested mountain highway, golden light flickering in and out of your eyes. Though, instead of the radio blasting the previous decade’s greatest hits, the dial is turned to NPR: a serious voice is talking to another equally serious voice about a global injustice while your hair blows in the wind and you maybe-not-so-innocently breathe in clean air.
The band released their increasingly-popular and critically-acclaimed debut album earlier this year. Better Oblivion is comprised of two artists who have both established careers for themselves outside of this new arrangement – 24-year-old Phoebe Bridgers of boygenius and who has developed her own solo career is joined by 36-year-old Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes.
Despite their short togetherness, their voices exist in perfect harmony – literally – and it sounds as if the two have been singing and writing as a unit of two forever (as I hope they will).
The duo’s self-titled album is carefree and quaint and a little sad, all impeccably layered above profound emotional and sociopolitical commentary. As Bridgers explained about one of their songs: “It’s kind of got a ‘doo, doo, do doo doo doo’ melody going on, but the lyrics are like heinous.”
An innocuous summer drive, a serious voice breaking through.
Bridgers and Oberst came together to create music under a blanket of secrecy, but their final product bears their souls to all.
“Better Oblivion Community Center” refers to a fake wellness center, for which an elaborate array of pamphlets were sent to people about how they could attend one of the band’s “community meetings” (read: concerts) before the album was officially announced.
On the name of their project, Oberst told Entertainment Weekly: “I feel like the ‘community’ part in the name is more like a dystopia that we’re all in together – which is maybe the zeitgeist of the world right now.” Chaos can either bring us together or increase our tendencies to withdraw – Oberst and Bridgers endeavor to promote the first option without hiding that, for nearly everyone, there exists a real desire to go with the second.
The duo’s writing partnership very much emulates a utopian vision of undying artistic solidarity within a chaotic world. Often with musical duos, one person (usually the man) is the clear lead of a song, or of the duo as a whole, while the other person (usually the woman) sings back-up harmony to support the main lead. Or, other times, the duet is played out more like a conversation, and while both voices are equal, they are always disparate. In defiance of these established trends, Bridgers told GQ: “We’re like, ‘it’s not a duet album.’ We wanted to sing pretty much in unison the whole time.”
Rejecting a patriarchal partnership, it is Bridgers’ voice who most often carries the songs, although both take on this “lead” role at different moments. And the two partners reject that second notion of a duo entirely, believing that voices in unison – in solidarity – carry more emotional weight than voices in disjointed conversation.
It’s not just their process that reads political; so does the content of their music.
The third song on the album is named after its eponymous poet: Dylan Thomas. He is known best for writing “Do not go gentle into that good night,” with its famously compelling line: “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” a battle cry for resistance in the face of that which is insurmountable – I mean, talk about the current zeitgeist.
Against a steady, melancholy beat, Bridgers’ and Oberst’s voices come in with: “I went to hear the general speak / I was standing for the anthem / Banners all around him / Confetti made it hard to see.” That the searing lyrics exist on a backdrop of “doo, doo, do doo doo doo” melody highlights the many contradictions present in being a modern progressive American and the contrast makes it hard not to think of our current president.
Even though Sam Sodomsky (Pitchfork) rightly wrote that the album is “not a bracing political statement” and instead “a collection of quiet, wandering thoughts,” those thoughts are undoubtedly political in nature, even if their exaltations are not bombastic, instead unfurling in a lazy stream of poetic consciousness.
The “general” mentioned in the song is not only representative of Trump; he is every wanna-be autocratic mogul who demands celebration and maniacal love. His aesthetic – confetti in the song, MAGA hats in reality – is blinding, but if you manage to look beneath, one finds only corruption, racist demagoguery, and a profound weakness of soul.
About a minute later, the duo returns to their not-so-veiled political commentary, singing in the same relaxed manner: “The flag pins on their lapels / The truth is anybody’s guess / These talking heads are saying / ‘The king is only playing / A game of four dimensional chess.’”
Could a line be any more referential to Fox News than this? In what is being hailed as a “post-truth age,” Bridgers’ and Oberst’s melding voices waxing poetic on the taking hostage of facts rings in an all-too-familiar reality.
The first song on the album – ”Didn’t Know What I Was In For” – is a satirical rallying cry for ineffective and performative activism (colloquially known as “slacktivism”). Just as the two adeptly ridicule modern politics, they also poke fun at those who claim to resist such politics without any iota of impact.
The song opens with wistful guitar chords, reminiscent of prototypical indie music, and after some strums Bridgers’ equally-wistful voice breaks through. A minute later, Oberst comes in to support Bridgers’ melody, and the two mournfully sing: “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.”
It’s a sing-songy takedown of people who perform actions that, in all actuality, have very little impact in order to signal (often on social media) that they are agents of social justice. The singer-songwriters don’t forget to implicate themselves, as well, in this trap of slacktivism and white-saviorism, allowing them to criticize their audience without alienation.
To Rolling Stone, Phoebe said, “We’re all guilty of slacktivism, or of feeling like a savior for taking two seconds of your day to think about someone else…we made sure to include lines that were self-referential. We’re all guilty of it.”
“My City” is the seventh song on the album and its lyrics are less overt political commentary and more a subtle reminder of the difficulty that comes with celebrating American freedom and democracy while due process and rule of law are continuously eroded and certain lives and bodies are valued more than others by those at the helm of such erosion.
The song’s last verse unfurls: “Today was a smoking sky / Today was a civic menace / Today I went walking while things explode / Some sad independence.” My mind immediately flickers back to all the Fourth of Julys we’ve “celebrated” since Trump became president, no, all the Fourth of Julys we’ve ever “celebrated” because, while Trump is an extreme manifestation of this nation’s worst, this country has never been “great.”
I can’t think of a better term than Better Oblivion’s “sad independence” to describe Fourth of Julys that feel bleak rather than joyful, on which fireworks (smoking skies) drown out incompetence and marginalization and oppression (civic menaces).
The album’s fifth song is “Exception to the Rule,” a narrative of a person who desires to separate themselves from the whole of society, living via escapist fantasies.
“I wanted to avoid it / Live out in the forest / Stay out of that orbit / Go drifting out to sea,” Bridgers and Oberst sing. They see isolation, rather than solidarity, as the best way to deal with all that is whirring around them, and sometimes it is a bit hard not to agree with them. The desire to escape exists within all of us, and Better Oblivion describes that desire so well and with such poignance that it’s hard not to keep listening.
But we stay, just as Phoebe and Conor have stayed, and we work and work to resist the apathetic, dissatisfied, unempathetic society Better Oblivion both darkly imagines and reflects with startling accuracy.
So next time you’ve been watching the news for what seems like forever and you feel too overcome to go on, queue up Better Oblivion onto your playlist, and let their beautiful voices and melodies wash over you. And then, when the album is over, leave ready to take on all that is making you angry.
Leave ready to resist.