What is it about dashed expectations that breed singer-songwriters? As the Sixties dream cratered, a golden era peaked in Laurel Canyon — think Joni, Jackson, Sweet Baby James — with a tendency towards wistful solipsism. Now, a new one is blooming as the American experiment contemplates its doom. Father John Misty’s cosmic snark, Mitski’s aching character studies, Kurt Vile’s transcendent vagueness — all of them offer strangely comforting proof that hopelessness springs eternal.
Add Los Angeles’ Phoebe Bridgers to that list. Her tenderly spooky 2017 debut, Stranger In The Alps, was followed by last year’s dazzling Crosby, Stills & Nash-style Boygenius EP, cut with kindred aces Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. Now, the 24-year-old Bridgers has another low-key supergroup. The debut by Better Oblivion Community Center opens in the voice of a seasonal hire on “I Didn’t Know What I Was In For,” searching for meaning in a world so full of pain it can drive a person literally insane.
She’s soon joined by BOCC’s other half: Conor Oberst. Twenty-five years in, he’s a touchstone for a new generation, Bridgers in particular. His emo shiver has become more tremor than seizure; on his recent Ruminations and Salutations LPs, he channeled a complicated, weary dolor. The duo harmonize beautifully, Oberst’s voice often just a brooding floorboard creak behind Bridgers’ brightly bloodshot confidences (see “Chesapeake”). As personas, they’re a duo of damaged survivors, a more dissolute version of Please Like Me’s Josh and Arnold.
Bridgers has a knack for cultivating vocal collaborations. On Stranger In The Alps, John Doe added harmony on her calling card, “Killer,” and Oberst pitched in on “Would You Rather,” a haunting song about Bridgers and her little brother. More recently, she enlisted Jackson Browne on her cover of McCarthy Trenching’s “Christmas Song.” With boygenius, she’s found a harmony that’s more than the sum of its formidable parts.
As social media leaves us paradoxically more isolated than ever, the sound of voices literally finding strength together is a potent metaphor. “Big Black Hearts” locates a vaguely Bonnie-and-Clyde-ish communion in joyously ugly guitar noise, while “Dominos,” a song staggering into the thin light after an all-night bender, looks towards something less than hope, but preferable to numbness. “I’m car-pooling to kingdom come/Into the wild purgatory,” the pair sing in the wake of a gushing Nick Zinner guitar solo, clearly glad to have the company for the ride.