Bridgers has proven that her sweet and somber storytelling can stand its own ground.
When Phoebe Bridgers met Ryan Adams through a mutual friend, he invited her to record at his studio the next day. In about half an hour, they completed her debut EP, 2015’s Killer. Adams has since compared the 23-year-old Angeleno to Bob Dylan. Considering her folk-inspired, articulate lyrical narration and calm, clear-cut vocals that are a mix between Gillian Welch, Elliott Smith and Jenny Lewis, he was not too far off. Bridgers clearly had comparisons to live up to and impressive advisers to make proud on her first full-length, Stranger in the Alps, and she has proven that her sweet and somber storytelling can stand its own ground.
Earlier this year, Bridgers told Nylon that her favorite quote is by Tom Waits, who said, “I want beautiful melodies telling me terrible things.” Stranger in the Alps is essentially that: gentle sounds that shelter the darkest subjects. Some tracks were written as early as her high school days (“Georgia”) to as recently as after she began to record her LP. Melancholy is the thread that weaves through Stranger in the Alps and, evidently, through the story of Bridgers’s adolescence. It might reveal itself through different colors and textures from song to song, but it’s always present, nevertheless. It is characterized by numbness on “Motion Sickness” when Bridgers sighs, “I hardly feel anything at all” over a fuzzy electric guitar reverb. The melancholy can come across as morbid, as she discusses her obsession with Jeffrey Dahmer on a lover’s couch on “Killer,” now a piano ballad since it appeared on her EP. The gloom overwhelms Bridgers on “Funeral,” when she discloses, “Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time/ And that’s just how I feel/ Always have/ And always will.” Grief does not define Phoebe Bridgers, however. Her sorrow intertwines with funny and sarcastic moments, like when she asks a pretentious ex “Why do you sing with an English accent?” “Demi Moore” is about loneliness, despite opening with a line about sexting, and its title stemmed from someone mishearing the devastating lyric, “I don’t want to be stoned anymore” as “I don’t want to be stoned Demi Moore.”
Much of Bridgers’ melancholy stems from her confrontations with the past. The cover of Stranger in the Alps is a childhood photo of Bridgers with a ghost painted over her figure. It is a relevant image as she faces her ghosts within her lyrics. On “Scott Street,” a day-drinking Bridgers reunites with an extinguished flame of some kind. They discuss everything that has happened since they last spoke, like how he or she stopped playing drums because “it’s too much shit to carry.” Bridgers interrupts the scene with the repeated line, “Do you feel ashamed when your hear my name?” The story intensifies as instruments are added one-by-one, beginning with an acoustic guitar, then a slow drumbeat and finally an entire orchestral accompaniment and the sound of a train. These sounds convey that this was much more than a casual encounter, although the conversation ends as nonchalantly as it began, with “Anyway, don’t be a stranger.”
Many of the Bridgers’ muses, friends and collaborators appear on Stranger in the Alps. She features vocals by X’s John Doe on “Killer” and Conor Oberst on “Would You Rather,” covers a nearly seven-minute rendition of Mark Kozelek’s “You Missed My Heart” and briefly mentions the recent passing of Lemmy and David Bowie on “Smoke Signals.” Touring and developing friendships with musicians like Julien Baker and Sharon Van Etten has led to frequent comparisons with them as well. It is another kind of confrontation with the past, as Bridgers acknowledges where she came from and who got her here. After becoming so defined by her musical encounters over the past few years and appearing in headlines with Ryan Adams’s name preceding her own, however, Phoebe Bridgers’s lyrical loneliness sounds best when she’s truly, finally alone and independent. The singer should trust her own musical abilities and be confident in her present self, letting her ghosts inspire her but never haunt her.