The connection found amongst shared interests within pop culture can be the catalyst for some of the strongest bonds in life. A terrible day capped off by the most mundane social event, spent staring at carpets with a drink in hand, can be altered by the moment another human mentions a band you love or nonchalantly slips a quote from your favorite sitcom into conversation; ears prick up from across the room, time stops for a second, a small spark and a “me too” moment occurs. In January of this year, 23-year-old Phoebe Bridgers released “Smoke Signals,” and it managed to hone in on that precise feeling. Packed with references to Bowie, Lemmy, Thoreau’s Walden, The Smiths, and a guitar line that emulates the Twin Peaks theme, the song encapsulates the warm-glow of discovering a connection via a first conversation with someone. It’s a masterclass in introspection and nostalgia that transcends boundaries in a way that it could soundtrack any one of our very own memory trips.
It’s this intimate, conversational approach of Bridgers that makes her debut album Stranger In The Alps a gut-punch of a triumph. The sheer candor and familiarity as foundations are rare to find but the listener has a goldmine here, resulting in one of the most rewarding and affecting records of the year.
Bridgers’s dream-like vocals are the most prevalent component and the tidal changes of subject matter are delivered with a particular flow that swims between gentle grace, jarring heartache and effortless acerbity. Whilst the majority of the time the vocals exist in soft tones and sweet falsettos, Phoebe Bridgers is also blessed with a range capable of exploding – but it’s a side handled with heavy self-moderation. There’s a moment at the end of the re-recorded version of “Georgia” which allows a peek at the unhinged side of her voice as she belts out:
Will you have me or watch me fall?
If I fix you will you hate me?
Would you fuck this and let us fall?
It’s an isolated incident and consequently a refreshing display of restraint that lives throughout Stranger In The Alps, which further lends to its charm and considered approach.
It’s not an uncommon characteristic for a singer-songwriter to bring lyrical storytelling to the forefront of their output, however with Bridgers it seems to sit on a different plain – there’s an unwavering and brutal honesty that informs the lyricism in her material. Each song is a frame of a larger scene, where moments are put under a microscope and the minutiae of a life experience are dissected and highlighted to expose the barest of emotions. Where heaviness and sometimes frank bleakness could be otherwise mishandled or considered trite, there’s nothing but devastating sincerity here. When this unravelling occurs – due to Bridgers’s aforementioned close, conversational approach – we witness moments of breathtaking introspection which are almost voyeuristic in their nature. The portrayal of a glimpse into someone else’s inner-monologue, fueled by a stream-of-consciousness, is so startling that as a listener, you almost daren’t breathe to upset the genuine flow:
And last night I blacked out in my car.
And I woke up in my childhood bed.
Wishing I was someone else.
Feeling sorry for myself.
And then I remembered someone’s kid is dead.
… she laments on “Funeral,” followed closely by one of the more harrowing moments on the album:
Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time.
And that’s just how I feel.
Always have. And always will.
Stranger In The Alps also takes a “less is more” approach with the music and production to allow the intricacies and vocals to flourish with ghostly effect. Whether it’s the halloween-like high synth lines that hovers over “Demi Moore” and “Georgia”, the highly reverberated electronic percussion that lies under “Chelsea,” guest vocals from John Doe on “Killer” and Conor Oberst on “Would You Rather,” or the most delicate fluttering sound as the arpeggiated keys whirl round on album closer (and Mark Kozelek cover) “You Missed My Heart” – there’s very careful and deliberate touches that exist only to serve the songs and emphasize a tone and mood precisely. There is no unnecessary embellishing or over-complicating, just flecks and shimmers of noise that lift a song because the truth and awe lies in the rawness and base of each song in Bridgers’s catalogue. Everything is wrapped up and delivered so concisely with the album closer, a song originally by an artist that Phoebe admits to adoring with some levels of personal conflict, yet it’s made completely her own to the point of emotional arrestment. All that exists is hypnotizing keys, stark and solitary vocals in the verses, self-harmonized and layered choruses and that slightly anxious flickering in the background that highlights her re-telling of a devastating story and encourages us to form a mental projection of the visuals via an old movie reel. It’s ethereal, captivating and mesmerizing.
The best records become the most reliable companions, lending themselves to a myriad of emotions and mental spaces. Stranger In The Alps is eerie but mainly due to its familiarity. Whether in subject matter, the open-book nature of how it presents itself, or in the sublime delicacy of each song, it’s an album that comforts and fascinates with each listen and leaves a mark that remains long after the last frame fades out.