Charles Manson was the first person I was truly ever obsessed with. While I don’t particularly identify with being creepy or having interests that tend to concern others, my timid fascination with this specific cult leader has spiraled into a full on interest into true crime as I get older.
There’s something inherently spooky about humanity’s ability to lure someone in with their charisma, charm and seemingly transcendental ideas about the world that connect people to form a bond that likely would have never happened without said cult. I’m sure whoever is reading this is taking the idea of a cult in a negative way, which doesn’t have to always be the case, though history tells us that many cults are led by crazed white men who have encouraged, or sometimes brainwashed, their followers to do something stupid.
But doesn’t the same concept (not so much the brainwashing, but the dedication) apply to music? Albeit less scary, there is a reason people listen to music and specifically why we go to live shows. Live music is a unique entertainment experience where people voluntarily choose to stand in a sea of strangers and bask in the glory of hearing a band perform their favorite song. It’s a time where people from all walks of life leave their burdens at the door (or quite frankly, bring them in to be dealt with in the form of a really sad song) and connect with others – for one night only. The mystique of developing a bond with someone you’ve never met before because you share the same taste in music or have the same favorite lyric in a song is a cultish idea in itself.
Cue Better Oblivion Community Center: the band formed by indie rockers Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos), and Phoebe Bridgers (Boygenius), two artists who know a thing or two about creating a successful career off of songwriting and collaboration. Oberst, 39, has had a career in the music industry longer than I’ve been alive. Oberst self-released his first album in 1993, titled Water and released music under a handful of other bands throughout the next couple years, but he’s most well known for his work in Bright Eyes. Starting as a solo project, Oberst released nine albums under the pseudonym and received critical acclaim from numerous music publications. In 2008, Oberst was named the best songwriter of the year by Rolling Stone. Oberst’s most recent solo album was released in 2017.
At just 24-years-old, Bridgers has created a career for herself that shows promise and longevity similar to her BOCC counterpart. Bridgers’ debut EP, Killer, was released in 2015 on PAX AM. She signed to Dead Oceans in 2017 and her debut, Stranger In The Alps, was released in September of the same year and like Oberst’s discography, received critical acclaim. Bridgers’ toured in support of her debut in the beginning of 2018 before sharing music under boygenius, a supergroup formed with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. You can see my review on their November 2018 show here.
Both Conor and Phoebe have developed careers that emphasize the importance and passion for collaboration and learning to grow as musicians while being vulnerable in the creative process with other people. Though their decision to record, release and tour under a new band wasn’t all that out of left field due to their history with side projects, the surprise announcement and rollout of Better Oblivion Community Center sure was.
Phoebe and Conor initially crossed paths in 2016. Conor was later featured Phoebe’s song “Would You Rather,” the 9th song off of Stranger In The Alps. The duo secretly recorded the songs for BOCC’s debut album during the mid to late months of 2018. Initially teasing some sort of project with cryptic brochures and encouraging fans to call into a mysterious telephone hotline to learn more information, BOCC had their debut television performance on The Late Night with Stephen Colbert on January 23, 2019 and released the album the following day.
BOCC’s first tour was announced just days after the album was released, hitting major US cities from March to May – beginning in Tucson, Arizona and ending in Manchester, England. The dates were being marketed as “Better Oblivion Community Center meetings” as the album as loosely based around a “dystopian wellness facility” (hence my mini-rant on cults). Just last year at the 2018 Eaux Claires Festival, Bridgers and frequent collaborator (and opening act for the BOCC tour), Christian Lee Huston joked about starting a cult – Huston was listened as a Reverend in one of BOCC’s “brochures” advertising their music.
BOCC’s first “meeting” in Chicago this past weekend created an impressively large crowd, one that sold so fast that the band immediately added a second show the following evening. I have been to at least 20 shows at Lincoln Hall in my lifetime, many of them being sold out, and none of them had gathered (pun intended) such a large audience to the point where they were spilling out into the venue bar, forcing both pairs of double doors to be propped open for the show’s entirety.
A backdrop on the stage appeared to be a community center of some sort with the words “it will end in tears” written above the entrance to said center. As the band took the stage, voicemails and reviews of the community center were playing on the speakers. The lighting enveloped their shadowy figures onstage, like they were inviting the spectators to listen to them “preach.”
The first track of the evening was “My City,” a song slow and steady that builds into a bigger bridge that allows both of them to belt it out over the heavy strum of the guitar. As they continued the performance with songs off of the album, “Sleepwalkin'” and “Dylan Thomas” were the highlights of the front third of the evening’s performance. A special treat was hearing Phoebe and Conor duet on “Would You Rather,” being able to hear the song the way it was recorded was a special moment that doesn’t have the same effect as hearing Phoebe perform it as a solo artist with another male voice singing Conor’s parts.
A particularly endearing moment of the set was seeing Conor and Phoebe joke about having choreographed dance moves for a song they were getting ready to sing live. It ended up being “Exception To The Rule,” which happens to be my favorite song off the album. The song has a particular indie pop flavor unique to the rest of the album, and it’s apparent that they realize this aspect as both Conor and Phoebe ditched their guitars, took their mics out of the stands and swayed back and forth and in circles onstage, as if neither of them really knew what to do onstage without a guitar in their hands. I loved it.
There wasn’t much room for banter in between songs: BOCC slammed through 17 songs in just about 80 minutes, including covering each other’s songs. Conor sang Phoebe’s “The Funeral” and opted for a more punk rock sound on an otherwise very depressing song — it’s about a friend of Phoebe’s who died and having to sing at his memorial service. Phoebe sang Bright Eyes’ “Lua” with a doe-eyed mysticism that would have made any die-hard Bright Eyes fan go download every Phoebe Bridgers song ever released.
The last song before the band’s encore was “Didn’t Know I Was In For,” the opening song off of the album and the one that probably hits me the hardest. The song explores concepts that reminds me of “internet activism” – the act of retweeting a politically charged tweet or signing a petition and thinking it’s actually making a positive change on the world.
“I didn’t know what I was in for / When I signed up for that run / There’s no way I’m curing cancer / But I’ll sweat it out / I feel so proud now for all the good I’ve done”
The song hits you like a ton of bricks. It was the perfect song to open an album with and the perfect one to close with (or close with before you do your encore). “I’ve really never done anything, for anyone,” they sing.
After one more cover of each artists’ songs (Conor with Phoebe’s “Scott Streets” and Phoebe with Bright Eyes’ “Easy/Lucky/Free,”) they closed the set with “Dominos.” Better Oblivion Community Center’s first meeting in Chicago was coming to an end.
Whether or not they convinced their audience to “join” the center, they definitely left us impacted. Sharing music that makes you uncomfortable, vulnerable and open to a sense of sadness that is daunting to tackle is no easy feat. Both Phoebe and Conor have been able to make that concept a staple to their careers – of course it translates to their collaborative work. With songs about death, sadness and everything in between, the gift of creating a space for strangers to form bonds through music is definitely a cult I can get behind.
All photos shot for Chicago Haze by Nic Kosirog-Jones.
Click here for BOCC’s tour dates.