- 14 May 19
Ed Power reports from Better Oblivion Community Center's first Irish outing at Vicar Street.
Conor Oberst was the generational voice to whom it fell to pen the ultimate anti-George W Bush screed with 2005’s ‘When The President Talks To God’. But if Bush was the walking, talking nightmare of every mid-2000s American liberal, how are they supposed to reckon with Donald Trump?
The answer, Oberst and his collaborator Phoebe Bridgers suggest on their fantastic eponymous album as Better Oblivion Community Center, is to seek escapism in truth. Recorded in secret, surprise-released last January and more or less reprised in full at Vicar Street, the record is a psychic scream disguised as indie-pop wish fulfilment : superficially upbeat yet with an undertow of existential despair.
It made for an enthralling study in contrasts – as, indeed, did the dynamic between Oberst (39) and Bridgers (24). Features concealed behind a grungy fringe, Oberst was a natural in the role of emotionally strung-out elder statesman, that familiar woe-slathered voice even more urgently angsty contrasted with Bridgers’ sweeter delivery.
Bridgers, who supported Oberst at BGE Theatre in 2017, supplied a youthful zing. As previously demonstrated with her fantastic solo album, Stranger in the Alps, and her Julien Baker-Lucy Dacus hook-up Boygenius, the LA native combines a distinctive West Coast insouciance – call it sad hippiedom – with old-school indie fervency. She also, of course, had a cameo in the Ryan Adams #MeToo story – her throwback ballad ‘Motion Sickness’ an open-veined meditation on their unhappy interactions.
The blend worked a charm at a packed Vicar Street, as the duo and their band opened with scorched earth duet ‘Didn’t Know What I Was In For’, wherein the narrator undergoes an emotional breakdown as they are buffeted by endless bad news via the evening bulletin.
Catchy yet cathartic, the track goes to the heart of Oberst and Bridgers' chemistry. Each is mournful in their own way yet brings a knack for laid-back hooks and a fondness for the architecture of classic rock. Here and elsewhere, for instance, space was found for zinging solos and they “faced off” with a pantomime flourish while swapping guitar lines (at one point three beach balls, signed by the artists, were also tossed into the crowd).
Acknowledgement of their standalone careers came with versions of Bridgers' devastating ’Would You Rather’ and ‘Lime Tree’, from Oberst’s days as wunderkind Bright Eyes. The biggest surprise and arguably the highlight of the evening was a version of ‘All The Umbrellas in London’ by the Magnetic Fields – a rumination on bottomless ennui that Better Oblivion Community Center transformed into a mane-shaking Seventies rock out.
What sounded like a good idea on paper worked even better in reality. The same could be said of Bridgers and Oberst’s collaboration more generally. It was certainly true of the rafter-rattling fashion in which they stormed Dublin. Whether Better Oblivion continues after the current cycle remains to be seen (both are exceedingly busy with their many other projects). Whatever the future holds their Vicar Street baptism was one to cherish.