The duo’s first full-length collaboration, Better Oblivion Community Center, continues their conversation. It’s a tight-knit folk-rock album about alienation, solitude, and our potential to better ourselves against bad odds. Despite its loose concept about a dystopian wellness facility and its elaborate rollout—complete with cryptic brochures and a telephone hotline—it’s not a bracing political statement like 2015’s Payola, Oberst’s pre-Trump rallying cry with his old punk band Desaparecidos. And unlike Bridgers’ recent EP as one-third of the supergroup boygenius, these songs don’t seek collaboration as a means for full-throated emotional escapism. Instead, Better Oblivion is a collection of quiet, wandering thoughts: the sound of twin souls burrowing deeper into their common ground.
Despite the laid-back atmosphere, the songwriting focuses on characters pushed to breaking points. Many of the songs revolve around destinations of wellness and escape: vacations, silent retreats, “little moments of purpose.” Such ideas have fascinated Oberst since his 2007 pivot-point Cassadaga, and they’ve never really left his work since. As an artist who depicted himself on his last album cover drowning face-down in a swimming pool on a beautiful summer day, he remains skeptical of taking it easy. “All this freedom just freaks me out,” he sings, sounding genuinely freaked out, in “My City.” The track ends with the album’s most primal vocal performance: a long note that the duo holds in unison before getting snuffed by a steady, clipped drumbeat. It’s a centering moment, like removing your earbuds and realizing how serene the world around you is compared to what’s in your head.
Because of their uniquely emo vocal styles and their tender subject matter, both Oberst and Bridgers are typically characterized as confessional songwriters, which can belie the complexity (and humor) of their work. In these songs, they push each other to write more in character. The opening “Didn’t Know What I Was in For” is an imagistic story-song that spirals out from dreary contentedness. Observing a friend who “says she cries at the news but doesn’t really” and eavesdropping on poolside conversations that start polite but “always sounds so cruel,” Bridgers implicates herself in a generational sense of helplessness: “I’ve never really done anything for anyone,” she sings over a mournfully strummed acoustic guitar.
Better Oblivion is dotted with refrains that sound breezy but read like last-ditch confrontations long after the spark has died (“Is this having fun?/It’s not like the way it was,” “I loved you/I wore you down,” “Why don’t you want it anymore?”). The radiant “Dylan Thomas” gallops forward with its impressive rhyme scheme, but the words mostly highlight a shared tendency toward fatalism: the couple at the party who get along best when they’re pointing out how pathetic the whole endeavor is. Along the way, Bridgers sneaks in what sounds like a jab at her critics (“They say you’ve got to fake it/At least until you make it/That ghost is just a kid in a sheet”) and Yeah Yeah Yeahs guitarist Nick Zinner shows up for some woozy solos, like a hungover take on Springsteen’s “No Surrender.” Suddenly, their pact to “go it alone” seems somewhat triumphant.
For each declaration of acceptance, there’s a bleaker attempt at finding closure: doomed visions of digging people up from the ground or driving until you feel different. In “Chesapeake,” the album’s slow-burning centerpiece, Bridgers and Oberst share a formative memory, sitting on someone’s shoulders during a concert: “We were the tallest person watching in Chesapeake,” they sing in harmony. Bridgers has written before about finding meaning with the music blasting—crying in the crowd with the teenagers, drowning out the sadness with a car radio. Here, she sings it like a lullaby, as Oberst’s familiar quiver helps guide toward a lonely conclusion. Sparsely attended and tepidly received, the concert they’re singing about seems kind of like a drag, and any revelation it inspires is short-lived. Soon they know that the music will be over, the crowd will disperse, and the world will be louder and more confusing than ever.