10th May | O2 Academy
Photos: Lee Ramsey
An air of formidable darkness was cast across Bristol’s 02 Academy, as Better Oblivion Community Center prepared for their debut live show on British soil. Amongst a layer of brooding and dimly-lit lights, the words ‘it will end in tears’ hung hauntingly above the stage: a harrowingly bleak nod to our turbulent current political climate and a snapshot of the apocalyptic tone that underlined the night’s proceedings. For, Better Oblivion Community Center offered no soothing indie-folk escapism, but instead dealt out an engaging barrage of rage, sensitive lyrics and a heft of emotional intensity.
Better Oblivion Community Center is the brainchild of two modern-day indie-rock icons, both at different stages in their career. The former Bright Eyes star, Conor Oberst, has been a mainstay for much of the indie-folk boom of the 21st century. Phoebe Bridgers, on the other hand, has found much more recent fame. The singer-songwriter’s 2017 debut album, Stranger In The Alps, catapulted her to indie-rock stardom. As the pair entered the stage, they were met with a cacophony of cheers.
We witnessed the pairing of two independently sublime artists, who both share an ability to craft sensitive songs, that unfurl with a deep-seated and raw melancholy. Yet, as Better Oblivion Community Center, the duo combined forces to create a relentless, soaring and surprisingly heavy indie-rock soundtrack to the rising turmoil that engulfs our political discourse and the lack of empathy that comprises it. The pair produced an intense and deafening bolt of bedraggled folk-rock that tugged on the heartstrings with a beautifully woven set of lacerating lyrics.
Proceedings began with the delicate, folk-infused ‘Didn’t Know What I Was In For’, a song that instantly struck an emotional chord as Oberst and Bridgers sang in unison, “I couldn’t save those TV refugees”. Proceedings swiftly saw the band race through a selection of fast-paced sucker punches, including lead single ‘Dylan Thomas’ and ‘My City’, culminating in a chaotic frenzy of scorching feedback and impassioned shrieks that thundered through the floors of the O2 Academy.
A particular highlight came from the pulsating analog synth of ‘Exception To The Rule’. The track saw Oberst and Bridgers make use of a selection of stage props. The pair initially sang while sat back on deckchairs in rather peculiar fashion, as they attempted to recreate the song’s opening line about needing a vacation. Beach balls were tossed into the crowd, somewhat at odds with the apocalyptic tone of the night’s proceedings. However, within moments the duo had quickly leapt from their chairs and were emphatically seething across the stage with stark intensity.
At various intervals throughout the performance, Oberst and Bridgers found time to delve back into their individual outputs – a fleeting glimpse of their formative careers. A duet of Bright Eyes’ ‘Lua’ brought the audience to an eerie silence, as thoughts were collected and tears were shed. Bridgers’ equally emotional ‘Funeral’ was however transformed into a high-octane, bursting with uncaged energy. While exciting live, it did somewhat spoil a truly beautiful and poignant song.
Just as the inherent darkness of the band’s stage design and light show was contrasted by a luminescent pair of lightbulbs at each far corner, Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers also represented a duo fraught with juxtapositions. As Oberst ferociously attacked his guitar into a frenzy of feedback, Bridgers delicately glistened and looked deep in a haze of silent consideration, burrowing for thoughts. The duo perhaps offered a perfect allegory for today’s confusing and volatile political landscape. For all of today’s mayhem and chaos, a glistening sense of hope and thoughtfulness isn’t too far away.
See Better Oblivion Community Center’s Tiny Desk Session here: