I first saw Phoebe Bridgers supporting Conor Oberst earlier this year, and her introspective songs immediately impressed me. She even sang on a duet of Lua with the man himself – at one point during the song Conor leaned on her for support as though she was the sober friend responsible for keeping him upright. The duet proved Phoebe Bridgers to be a singer with an understated power, demonstrated beautifully on her debut album Stranger in the Alps.
The album opens with Smoke Signals, where she goes off the grid, Waldening it with someone, even if she can only last a week. There’s an unease in these lyrics about the strains of love and life, imagining checking into a hotel to ‘hide’ from the horrors of the world and the sadness of famous people dying. The music has that lovely Elliott Smith sweeping melancholy to it, her voice barely rising above a whisper. This relationship is doomed and she knows it but somehow she can’t help imaging a better future. There’s enough hope here to stop the sadness suffocating the songs.
There’s some brutal put downs in Motion Sickness, a dissection of a destructive relationship where she ‘faked it every time‘. The music and video has an Aimee Mann vibe to it and it’s interesting that this song owes less to the indie folk sound of her influences than the rest of the album. It’s also the best song on here, make of that what you will. The emotional honesty just cuts right through you.
The first time I heard Funeral I felt myself getting emotional, such is the truth of this song. Jesus Christ I’m so blue all the time/ that’s just how I feel/ I always have and always will. That old ‘it gets better’ story we tell ourselves is exposed as a lie. She has to sing at a funeral of a ‘kid’ who died of a heroin overdose and you know she understands that the endless recurring tragedy of humanity is all right there in that moment.
Demi Moore is the saddest song about sexting you’ll ever hear, modern romance has never sounded so empty. Scott Street ruminates on a broken relationship and its aftermath with its repeated do you feel ashamed/ when you hear my name and the hollow lie of don’t be a stranger. Killer is a sad piano ballad about murder and love. The lyrics have echoes of that Smashing Pumpkins line ‘the killer in me is the killer in you‘ and details Bridgers freaking out about serial killers, using them as a metaphor for her relationship.
Chelsea takes us to that iconic rock n roll palace of the Chelsea Hotel. When I first went to New York I went on a pilgrimage to find the place, not releasing how decayed and depressing it really was until I was stood in front of it. That’s the thing about believing in the myth of the doomed rock star – it isn’t so romantic when you actually have to live in its drug fuelled hell, as this song attests. By the end she sings ‘I won’t be home with you tonight’, managing to free herself from the prison of this relationship.
‘Would You Rather’ is the most positive sounding song on the album, and it is actually a duet with aforementioned Conor Oberst. Last year Conor released Ruminations, one of the most devastating albums of his career which basically concluded that when you grow older life will just find new ways to break your heart so you may as well just keep drinking until your time is up. Here he thankfully sounds more upbeat, they are finding a way out of the suicide pact of our family and friends. Hearing them sing together makes me feel a little better about the world, like everything can’t be that bad if the lonely emocountry weirdos can find each other and be friends. Well you got to look for the brightness where you can these days.
There’s a core of strength and self analysis to these songs which shines through the misery. The cover of Stranger in the Alps may paint Phoebe Bridgers as a ghost but open the record and you will see a picture of a promising artist who is revelling being in the shadows.