If you asked me why Better Oblivion Community Center is an early contender for album of the year I would struggle to give you more than one valid reason. There is no big hit that will propel either Conor Oberst or Phoebe Bridgers to Super Bowl Final status, production is sparse with occasional flourishes but mostly clean acoustic, not really breaking any rules and there is not enough originality to raise it to Neutral Milk Hotel or Wilco levels. But every time I listen to this record I want to immediately start listening to it again and that is the reason, because Better Oblivion Community Center is better than most other records.
Arguments will rage about the album’s best track but it is a record perhaps best reflected by ‘Chesapeake’’s crisp morning beauty and pristine vocal mix. Voices perfectly entwined as if in loving embrace, but the pair’s unique symbiotic relationship goes beyond such overused creative writing endeavours; there is a deeper unwritten musical understanding like conjoined twins performing a delicate task to perfection. The album has been long rumoured but surprise-dropped last week, the marketing as non-marketing from the retro cover to the BMX promo shot was great along with the interview clips showing the pair clearly adore each other, and the track’s gentle duet tugs at the heartstrings, a sentimental trip.
The most recent of a long line of American male/female collaborations, Better Oblivion Community Center opens with the shimmering ‘Didn’t Know What I was In For’ channelling Michael Stipe and (perhaps unfashionably) Cerys Matthews at their most soulful, and the traditional themes of escapism and transience that can be traced in some form or other all the way back to the frontiersmen, still hurrahed by the likes of Courtney Marie Andrews today. In the post-grunge landscape opened up by In Utero, ‘Sleepwalkin’’ has the lush melodies of Billy Corgan’s short-lived Zwan project but with some loose country stylings like Taylor Swift’s Red if it had gone easy on the pop pills. The only ‘Exception To The Rule’ is archly named as an odd electro interlude, and is perhaps a mid-album lull, if one is required, however it is the track most like Flaming Lips or Mercury Rev here, and it’s these esteemed comparisons that maybe benchmark this record in the pantheon of great American music releases.
Last week’s curtain-raiser ‘Dylan Thomas’ might bother the lower reaches of the charts but its MOR Americana is crushed gloriously by two of the few guitar solos on this record. ‘Service Road’’s minor chord progressions might draw comparisons with Craig Finn and as a snapshot of blue-collar America, you won’t hear anything better this year, where every note is a beautifully realised journey of its own, while ‘My City’ is a Steinbeckian tale “looking out” over a town, stoically upbeat and atmospheric. The arrangements are at times traditional so ‘Forest Lawn’ has a timeless lullaby quality but with a steely surreal edge and it’s these types of subtle interactions with the listener, occasional heavier moments and slight gradations in form, that push Better Oblivion Community Center into AOTY territory.
On ‘Big Black Heart’ the pair artfully open up about the highs and devastating lows of suffering from depression, a topic they have both previously written about but delivered with a positive, stronger together feel that seemingly seals the pair’s bond.
So, this is a record whose lyrical touchstones are black coffee, cars, rivers, the sky, the ground, sleeping, waking, motels but most of all LIVING. Better Oblivion Community Center is the soundtrack to that great American road trip. But on closer ‘Dominos’ (a Taylor Hollingsworth cover) it’s about the comfort blanket of home and putting things off until tomorrow – a stirring but tear-jerking finale to such a wonderful, wonderful record.
Better Oblivion Community Center is out now on Dead Oceans.