Album Review: Phoebe Bridgers - Stranger in The Alps

If you are looking for a true heir to the evocative, earnest, and incredibly devastating throne left empty after the passing of Elliott Smith, look no further than Phoebe Bridgers, the 22-year old singer, songwriter wunderkind who just release her arresting debut album, Stranger in The Alps.

It’s sad to think I nearly slept on this release—I can’t keep up with everything musically these days, and I had noticed the album’s artwork popping up here and there online, but it was an article on the A.V. Club that caught my attention. The piece dubbed the album one of “this year’s best and also one of its saddest.”

Both of those claims are true. Hyperbole aside, this is the kind of record that stops you in your tracks and knocks the wind out of you completely.

Rarely do you come across an album that is this startling, and it is apparent from the very first track that Bridgers is wise beyond her years, both as a songwriter and storyteller, as she blurs the line between the two. Stranger in The Alps is a record that strangles you emotionally—I mean, it takes a toll on you to listen to this thing, but it’s a record that demands your attention and participation. Even though it’s going to break your heart every time you hear it, you can’t help but be drawn in.

Stranger in The Alps is a record that winds up being about stark contrasts—the youthful, almost childish innocence in Bridger’s voice is juxtaposed against harsh lyrics like “Jesus Christ I’m so blue all the time, and that’s just how I feel,” or “An open heart, open container”—there’s more than this too. I mean, it gets darker as the album continues. And it is this blunt imagery that is then contrasted against the lush, gorgeous arrangements or, in some cases, are worked into the trappings of what could be called a ‘pop song,’ like on the album’s infectious and sardonic single “Motion Sickness.”

One of the things that makes this record so impressive is the unrivaled triple shot it begins with—Stranger in The Alps opens with the slow burning “Smoke Signals,” a song that winds up being one of the most devastating of the set. In it, Bridgers and her unnamed companion visit his hometown and get sad, lament the passing of musical icons and get even sadder, and the whole thing ends with a harrowing phrasing of ambiguity. From there, she picks things up with the aforementioned “Motion Sickness”—structured around a catchy refrain, Bridgers writes unabashedly about a doomed involvement with an older musician going through a midlife crisis—“You gave me $1,500 to see your hypnotherapist—I only went one time, you let it slide,” she deadpans early on in the song; then, later, “You said when you met me you were bored, and you were in a band when I was born.”

Nearly as heartbreaking as “Smoke Signals” is “Funeral,” a sparsely accompanied tale of Bridgers returning to her hometown to sing at the funeral of someone a year older than her. The song is palpable of with the anxiety of mortality and going back home, and in it she utters the starkest lyric of the whole album—“Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time, and that’s just how I feel. I always have, and I always will.” This is where it becomes almost too easy to draw those Elliott Smith comparisons, recalling the line he delivers, straight faced, in “I Didn’t Understand”: “My feelings haven’t changed a bit—I always feel like shit. I don’t now why, I guess that I ‘just do.’”

Outside of its evocative quality, one of the most impressive things about Stranger in The Alps is just how fully realized this album is. This isn’t bedroom four-track recordings, or lo-fi indie rock. Bridgers, backed by a Secretly Canadian offshoot, makes use of the nearly slick production and studio flourishes allotted to her in this opportunity. It’s a surprising aspect to the album, like the electric wooshes at the end of “Funeral,” or the reversed piano tinkling on the affecting “Killer.” These additional effects take a little while to wrap your head around, but once you do, you wouldn’t want to hear these songs arranged in any other capacity.

It does seem worth noting that this is a night and day difference from the acoustic EP she recorded for Ryan Adams' Pax Am label two years ago; and both "Killer" and "Georgia" appear in that set in drastically different forms.

Alps continues on with “Demi Moore,” where she recalls a failed attempt at phone sex; on “Killer” she starkly reflects on life, death, and love; on the sweeping and grand “Georgia,” she earnestly uses the cursed ‘Millennial Whoop’ but it surprisingly works; and on “Would You Rather” she trades lines with a surprising guest appearance from Conner Oberst.

Bridgers concludes the album with a true murder ballad—a startling cover of “You Missed My Heart,” written by Mark Kozelek and Jimmy Lavelle. The piece was originally part of their collaborative album from 2013, Perils From The Sea, which contrasted Lavelle’s glitchy instrumentation as The Album Leaf, with Kozelek’s vocals (at this point, he still sang and didn’t talk/sing and croak as much as he does now.)

Kozelek himself has performed the song live before, stripping its arrangement down from the chintzy sounding keyboards and drum machines to something tender and plucked out on the acoustic guitar. Bridgers does him one better, arranging it dramatically and hypnotically on the piano, mixed low and muddy in the background above her soaring, tender vocals.

Stranger in The Alps stops just short of being a perfect record, though its flaws are few and far between. A slim 10 songs, Bridgers doesn’t overstay her welcome, even if you want her too, however the album’s second half is paced a little slower (perhaps deliberately) than the first. And even that can work in its favor—tugging just that much more emotion out of you.

This is the kind of record that doesn’t come along every day, and the fact that it is Bridgers’ full length debut makes it all the more admirable. Promising young performers don’t come along every day, either—Phoebe Bridgers is someone to behold, and Stranger in The Alps is the kind of halting listening experience that will break your heart and haunt you long after you’ve stopped listening.

Stranger in The Alps is out now via Dead Oceans.