It's evident that indie songwriters Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst are kindred spirits from a brief sampling of any cross-section of their catalogs. Both deal in folk-inflected storytelling that tends to slowly curdle from introspection to darkness and both have deftly balanced approaches to their songcraft that keep their hooks from being swallowed by that darkness. Oberst added guest vocals to a song on Bridgers' 2017 debut A Stranger in the Alps, and Better Oblivion Community Center materialized shortly thereafter, expanding on the chemistry these two colleagues felt during their first collaborations. The sound of Better Oblivion Community Center doesn't stray too far from that of Bridgers' thoughtful solo work or Oberst's well-established wavering indie folk as Bright Eyes. Hushed and slow-moving acoustic songs make up a large percentage of the material here, leaving space for lyrics dense with emotional imagery, glum scenes, and character sketches. The album opens with the dreamy drift of "Didn't Know What I Was in For," which reads like a journal entry from a lonely summer, with Bridgers and Oberst harmonizing on observations about strangers and acquaintances and the disconnect that flows through their interactions. The songwriters mostly sing in unison or harmonize, their distinctive voices creating something new in the blend. Both are at their best when recounting dour tales, and "Chesapeake" describes the fall of a once-famous musician, moving from scenes of sold-out concerts to barely attended gigs in a parking lot with harmonies that feel distant but crackle with an aching beauty. There are only a few songs that diverge from the laid-back or melancholic tone that permeates most of the album, with mixed results. The rocking and unstoppably catchy "Dylan Thomas" is a highlight among the ten songs, with electric full band performances and guest guitar wizardry from Yeah Yeah Yeahs' member Nick Zinner. The blurty synth line that acts as the backbone for "Exception to the Rule," on the other hand, sticks out and distracts from the strengths of the song. It ends up feeling like an experimental electronic track on an otherwise folk-rock album, and takes a few listens to get used to. While this choice is jarring to listeners, it's a device Oberst has used before on Bright Eyes records. Both songwriters are idiosyncratic performers to the point where their unique traits become the defining factors of their art. Bridgers' ability to translate small internal moments into enormous projections of the human condition are what made her contributions to boygenius (another collaborative project of hers with songwriters Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker) the brightest and most relatable of the bunch. Along with her unhurried vocals, Bridgers' signature styles gel nicely with Oberst's trademark shaky croon and stark lyrical perspectives. While both performers are too iconic for Better Oblivion Community Center to truly feel separate from their respective bodies of work, there's still a strange magic that comes from the combination.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas