Phoebe Bridgers Finds Virtue in Restraint on Haunting, Eclectic Debut
By Brody Coronelli
"There’s something so cathartic about extreme emotion," Phoebe Bridgers said in an interview with Gold Flake Paint. On her debut LP Stranger in the Alps, this outlook serves as a connecting thread, as she croons her way through avenues of heartache and nostalgia in favor of bringing some of her darkest and most necessary thoughts to light. She doesn't shy away from sadness: instead, she holds it close and keeps it burning; a heat that grows irresistibly close when she picks up a guitar and starts to sing.
Bridgers debut EP Killer, a three-song single released back in 2015 under Ryan Adams' PAX AM label, was the first release to put her on the map. This one-take collection of biting folk took the road of traditional, stripped-back acoustic crooners, but Bridgers' technically stunning vocals and poignant songwriting that manages to spin irresistible poetry from the ashes of stark and often painful imagery made Killer an irresistible and immediate selection of indie-folk. A good deal of her debut LP Stranger in the Alps sets out to expand past these acoustic roots, but also seeks to expand on them. On this full-length record-- produced by Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska-- Phoebe Bridgers has found a part-time home in familiar singer/songwriter territory, but has no plans of staying for long. Instead, this sharp, unwavering, and dazzling album showcases Bridgers successfully taking strides away from the world of endearing indie-folk without losing touch of the intimate, minimalistic emotional-necessity that it affords.
The lead-single "Smoke Signals" marks a strong balance between the two. A dark, shadowy love song, it poignantly floats through it's five minute run-time, relying on the intimate, personal details of a relationship and brooding, apocalyptic imagery to convey a romantic connection that transcends any tangible barriers. "You must've been looking for me/Sending smoke signals, pelicans circling/Burning trash out on the beach" she sings over a shadowy, reverb-heavy open-tuning through a haze of haunting emotional omnipotence.
"Motion Sickness" is the record's most blatant stride into new territory, but it's pulled off with ease. This tumbling, rhythm heavy rocker radiates with melancholic dissonance as Bridgers paints a picture of the disorienting aftermath of a relationship built on a weak foundation. Her vocals constantly border on falsetto, gliding delicately over the murky guitar lead in a way that calls back to Elliot Smith on Either/Or (Smith being one of Bridgers' most significant influences). The song has a stunning resolution where Bridgers stops fighting the heartache induced nausea, instead choosing to "surrender to the sound".
While a good deal of Stranger in the Alps tries to distance itself from the quiet folk music that originally framed it, Bridgers also has no qualms with retreating into acoustic minimalism. In fact, she does this so well that it's impossible to resist. "Funeral", a downtrodden anthem of heartache, is one of the most skillfully written and haunting songs released this year. The track paints a picture of chronic melancholy using four poetically-lucid vignettes, the first of which surrounding a funeral. "Playing at a funeral tomorrow, for a kid a year older than me" she sings, establishing the ruminating, melancholic tone with one simple line. A song with a chorus that proclaims "Jesus Christ, I'm so blue all the time" has the potential to slide into insufferable melodrama, but Bridgers' keen, poetic tongue render this moment immediate and necessary. "Scott Street" also leans on only her voice and an array of open chords, but the song's warm embodiment of nostalgia makes it one of the album's most biting moments.
"Would You Rather" is another song that finds virtue in restraint. Featuring only Bridgers, an acoustic guitar, background vocals from none other than Conor Oberst, and a delicate array of strings and piano draws, the song strikes with the sentimental force of a three-day rainfall. "Come to find out/I'm a can on the string, and you're on the end", the chorus croons, the latter of which is sung by Oberst.
Two songs from Killer appear on this LP, but they've been significantly redesigned. Instead of favoring warm, open chords on an acoustic guitar, "Killer" is centered around sustained piano chords, giving the gritty love song a new level of emotional depth. "Georgia" trades it's acoustic framework for slick, electronic production that makes use of a drum machine and carefully layered vocal harmonies. The arrangement is ambient and synthetic compared to the acoustic version, until it's resolution around the three minute mark, where a massive string section sends the song spinning into a lush, dizzying climax.
The biggest thing to pull away from Bridgers' eclectic, haunting debut is it's persistent sense of sadness. Dealing in the subjects of mortality, heartbreak, detachment, and obsession, these songs embody the darkest side of the human condition, but they do so without spiraling into self-pity or total despair. Instead, she exposes a warm luminosity hiding in the heartache, characterizing it as a state of mind that isn't too be shoved down or turned away from. This doesn't equate to always choosing what sounds pretty, though. Bridgers doesn't shy away from writing from a self-aware, even self-deprecating standpoint; a move that only further illuminates her authenticity. These songs feel cathartic and necessary; they ring with the energy of music that needed to be written and was conceived naturally, rather than something deliberate.
Stranger in the Alps is a striking balance of quiet indie-folk and elaborate instrumental flourishes; a heartening and masterful debut from a singer/songwriter who's already asserted herself as one of the most promising up-and-coming voices her generation has to offer. All of these songs are-- to a certain degree-- sad, but inbetween the folds of blue lies an immense sense of spirit and purpose; something that will guide Phoebe Bridgers for many more albums to come.
Listen to: "Motion Sickness", "Funeral", "Would You Rather", "Demi Moore"
Stranger in the Alps is out on September 22 via Dead Oceans.