Phoebe Bridgers’ career has been propelled by fellow musicians. Ryan Adams, Conor Oberst, and Julien Baker have all sung the praises of the 23-year-old Los Angeles singer-songwriter, leading up to her full-length debut Stranger in the Alps. Fittingly, the album itself is also populated by other artists: Bridgers writes about lost legends like Bowie and Lemmy down through the local hobbyists who haunt their hometowns like ghosts in faded band tees. In “Scott Street,” she reads into how an old flame tells her his drums are “too much shit to carry.” In “Motion Sickness,” one of the year’s most exquisite breakup anthems, she lands her harshest jab in the chorus: “Hey, why do you sing with an English accent? I guess it’s too late to change it now.”
Stranger in the Alps is a collection of songs about intimacy, documenting how our relationships affect the way we view ourselves and interact with others. The crux of Bridgers’ writing arrives in small details: a casual exchange of words, a song played on a long car ride, the moments we relive in our heads once we get back home. Bridgers’ voice has a breezy, conversational flutter that helps her stories of heartbreak and loss avoid morbidity. She sounds best when she double-tracks it in layers of light falsetto: an effect that, depending on what she’s singing, can sound sweet and soothing or scalding like feedback.
The old cliche about artists having their whole lives to make their debut rings true here. The earliest composition, “Georgia,” dates back to Bridgers’ teenage years, when she crafted her own lyrics out of a misremembered Feist track. Telling the story of an early relationship, she builds to dramatic moments of catharsis like an artist attempting to win over an audience by the end of the song. “Smoke Signals” and “Motion Sickness,” meanwhile, reflect recent events in her life. They’re more patient and refined, unfolding to subtler moments of revelation. The span of time these songs cover can make Stranger in the Alps feel overwhelming and occasionally incohesive. Playing it from front to back comes with the intensity of scrolling all the way through someone’s Facebook photos.
Accordingly, some of the images you’ll find are not especially flattering. “Demi Moore” is an intense song about getting high and sending nude pics. Over gentle, hypnotic fingerpicking, Bridgers travels the terrifying line of thought from feeling sexy and desired to feeling vulnerable and alone, wishing you could delete your texts like tweets before anyone can see them. “I don’t want to be stoned anymore,” she repeats solemnly in the chorus. In “Funeral,” she tries to learn a lesson from the death of a friend but can only summon self-laceration and momentary distraction. “I woke up in my childhood bed, wishing I was someone else, feeling sorry for myself,” she sings, “When I remembered someone’s kid is dead.” Both songs—which are sequenced, somewhat jarringly, next to each other—feel exquisitely raw and revealing.
Bridgers’ tendency to risk heavy-handedness for the sake of emotional honesty brings to mind the recent work of Mark Kozelek, whose 2013 song “You Missed My Heart” gets a faithful reimagining at the end of the album. While its dream-logic murder fantasy ties back nicely to Bridgers’ breakout song “Killer,” Kozelek’s ballad falls short as the de facto album closer. (It’s followed by a brief, wordless reprise of “Smoke Signals.”) Along with the Conor Oberst-featuring “Would You Rather,” this final stretch of songs puts Bridgers at a distance, instead showcasing the musicians she admires and draws inspiration from. It’s a slightly deflating end to an album that succeeds through its unnerving, unflinching personality. By now, the most interesting characters in Bridgers’ story are the ones she puts on the page herself.
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