You know a singer/songwriter has achieved “cult” status when every side project they do despite seldom publicity receives mass interest and each live show they do sells out. The singer/songwriter in question is Conor Oberst who gained notoriety through his band Bright Eyes. Having also achieved success as a solo artist and other side projects (Desaparecidos and Monsters of Folk), Oberst has now joined up with Phoebe Bridgers and together the two alt-folk musicians have created Better Oblivion Community Center.
After seeing Bridgers play in Los Angeles in 2016, Oberst invited her to support him when he toured his 2016 Ruminations LP and by 2018 they formed and recorded their eponymous debut LP, Better Oblivion Community Center. Whilst there is mutual admiration for each other’s work; the potential for collaboration is a different matter. The differences between Oberst and Bridgers are many, from Oberst being fifteen years her senior, having contrasting outlooks and Phoebe tending “to gravitate towards people who have very similar sensibilities…” and being more of “a perfectionist” than Oberst. Nonetheless, they were able to write the songs together, produce the LP together alongside Andy LeMaster, agree not to have the abbreviation “BOCC” and have “in mind this idea that there’s all this negativity in the world, but you can escape it through having a community”.
Following support from Better Oblivion Community Center live member Christian Lee Hutson (who’s material Phoebe Bridgers has produced), an introduction to the Better Oblivion Community Center was made: “We welcome you to experience a healing sound bath - live in concert. Let the vibrations wash you clean, realigning and resonating in your journey toward serene healing and true bliss.” Oberst and Bridgers came out as part of a five-piece band amidst an impressive backdrop of an illuminating community centre building with the words “it will end in tears” on it. No one really deciphered what that meant. Brexit? The one and only time Conor received a lukewarm reception were when he asked a packed Shepherds Bush Empire their opinion on this subject. As well as an impressive backdrop, there were live pencil sketching’s the length of each song throughout the set.
Opening with My City, one could immediately see connections to the pleasant laid back country folk that inspired the Outer South LP Oberst made with the Mystic Valley Band. The joint harmonies brought a new exciting and ebullient perspective. The penultimate track from the LP, Big Black Heart followed mellowing an elated and cramped audience before launching them into a crescendo on a new level with an added rawness of the guitars that don’t come across the same way on the LP. Sleepwalking changes things completely with its upbeat eighties synth electro-pop keys and synthetic drum beats, yet Sleepwalking still had a soulful ethereal presence of down-tempo balladry and “sad sack” music. Catchy single Dylan Thomas with its talks of “four-dimensional chess” got the Empire dancing.
During the set Phoebe Bridgers played three songs from her solo back catalogue, the band covered All the Umbrellas in London by The Magnetic Fields and Conor played Lua, Lime Tree, Easy, Lucky and Free from the Bright Eyes back catalogue. As exciting as it was to hear Bright Eyes material, the highlight of the show was Bridgers and Oberst remaining true to the collaborative philosophy they created with the Better Oblivion Community Center. Whilst Oberst’s voice was as distinctive as usual (with superb diction) and his established style of songwriting and performing was present and welcomed; you genuinely felt Oberst’s elatedness of being taken out of his traditional solitary song-writing experience and joined harmoniously in this new collective.
The one thing that stood out was despite the majority of the set list consisting of new songs (virtually untested live) with no accompanying lyric videos, the power of these heartfelt personal, yet collaborative lyrics was present and synchronised perfectly with the theme of the Better Oblivion Community Center and the need to exit solitary and be part of something other than ourselves. The examples are numerous, but one that was particularly prominent was the track before the encore, Didn't Know What I Was in For with the following lyrics “To fall asleep I need white noise to distract me. Otherwise, I have to listen to me think”.