Comparisons come easy with
Phoebe Bridgers. Her sparse, exacting instrumentation recalls
Julien Baker and
Conor Oberst – both of whom she toured with in 2016 and 2017 respectively – and
Elliott Smith, while her vocals – bridging the ferally emotive with technical accomplishment of whispish Nashville – poignantly evoke
Jason Isbell and
Ryan Adams, with the latter supporting her well before she signed to her label Dead Oceans.
Who she most reminds me of – and I’m aware specious comparisons are the contingency of the lazy and I’m in danger of damning her talent with faint praise – is Mark Kozelek (who she covers in ‘You Missed My Heart’), belonging to that faction of storytellers who also happen to sing.
Bridgers is well aware of the threads of comparisons being inferred from her debut record Stranger In The Alps, especially the Kozelek parallel; “I think I really appreciate a lot of different kinds of songwriting. Some of my favourite writers are straight-up storytellers, like Jason Isbell or Mark Kozelek, but then I also appreciate Elliott and Conor and Ryan, where you’re not entirely sure what they’re about, where they can be deliberately messy and all over the place, but they make you sad and nostalgic for some reason. Though, I do like writing story songs, and I think I naturally gravitate towards that.”
Comforting her lyrical sensibilities, her stylistic invocation of Elliott Smith’s operatic vulnerability was deliberate; “I always think of Elliott’s musicality, I always feel it’s scarce. It always feels to me like he’s transposing the music of an orchestra to an acoustic guitar, so I found myself referencing him constantly. It’s so perfectly arranged that it sounds huge but it’s still really intimate.”
These lo-fi spaces can echo with the most resounding fidelity if minimalistic production is balanced with the precise arrangements which proliferated Smith’s catalogue; “I think the music I like the most rides that middle line, between lo-fi and hi-fi. All my friends who record, and Elliott, work that balance amazingly.”
One such friend is one of
The 405's favourites Julien Baker; “I think that tour with Julien was my favourite tour. It was seminal for me. Meeting a community of musicians you respect and love, and she is the focal point of that. We still email a lot exchanging song ideas, and it was so nice to meet someone my age who I respect musically that much. She is such a layered person. Also for live shows to have someone to share that experience with, she was incredible, it was hugely important for me, and still is to have that sustaining relationship now, and we are both self-deprecating, so often our interactions are just us apologising for having written the song idea in the first place; she is so similar to myself, and it’s nice to have that constructive criticism from people you respect.”
She’s toured with Oberst, Adams, and Baker. She covers a Kozelek song, and externally namechecks Smith and Isbell; and the soul and artistry of these songwriters pulsates within Stranger. This record is a distillation of folk’s storytelling tradition; in its design, lyrical style, and metaliterariness. More importantly however, it’s a singular, and essential, vision.
While she’s capable of the most graceful lyricism, her remit is agreeably prose, of palatable and often juddering sentences and stories about life’s ennui and malaise and inch-close inadequacy, that precariously whirl around death’s truth while proffering gracenotes of wisdom and levity. Like Stranger's haunting cover art – where one of our most comfortably codified formations of death, the sheet ghost, is coloured over a photograph – death’s spectre is omnipresent and stark in Bridgers’s language without ever overpowering it.
When Bridgers released ‘Smoke Signals’ – initially a standalone single, now the opening track to Stranger – in January this year its effect was seismic. In cascading and disorienting detail, Bridgers draws a vivid portrait of accumulatively numbing loss, through contrasting anecdotal allusions with blunt declarations; “Singing ‘Ace Of Spades’ when Lemmy died/ But nothing’s changed,” sows a wry bubble of futility. It broke the hearts of folk fans and DIY blogs, and the reaction in turn moved its creator.
“I think ‘Smoke Signals’ was special because I released it at the time before my record deal, and the only things I had out was so intensely associated with Ryan [Adams], and I didn’t know how much of that was a factor in people liking it. I was curious, and really happy with the result. That felt really good to me. I was in Europe at the time, and to see it on the internet, see NPR write about it, and see my friends post about it; it was really affirming.”
‘Smoke Signals’ is partially a synecdoche for Stranger, contemplating both illusive memory and the humdrum of day-to-day living through the smog of death. This constancy clouds the worlds realised by ‘Funeral’, ‘Chelsea’, and the Oberst-featuring ‘Would You Rather’, to name the most explicit.
Bridgers is far too gifted though, and self-aware, a songwriter to let death saturate her songs, and she probes deviations on the theoretically familiar; romantic angst, social dislocation, loneliness, even candid love. Inescapably, profoundly, she probes more deeply and more uncomfortable than we’re meaningfully used to. ‘Demi Moore’ is lonely but wry, fluctuating as insolently as the pound's exchange rate; “Don’t wanna be alone anymore/I could feel alone/ I could, I got a good feeling.” The gritty, prickly specificity of her lyrics draw us in, and their collated effect is often teleportation, as in the tenderly fatalistic and utterly vivid ‘Funeral’.
Yet it also cradles a voluminous connection. The rousing country whimsy of ‘Georgia’ is uncomplicatedly sweet, a direct line to the life muscle, while the combustible ‘Motion Sickness’ is the record’s closest proxy for a mutual singalong; “There are no words in the English language/ I could scream to drown you out,” thunders as an irascible drag of an ex. It isn’t so much comic relief, as an extension of Bridgers’s truth.
“It was important to have humour – taking from Mark Kozelek and other writers who are self-referential, but I didn’t want to go too far in that direction, like Father John Misty where you’re just talking about yourself the entire record, so I wanted to be careful but also that humour is a huge part of my personality. It’s about authenticity.”
From this authenticity evolves a stunningly complex and indomitably touching work, a gallop through the gallery of emotional paradox.
There are libraries of striking quotes about death, but one that’s engrained itself in my memory is from Markus Zusak’s young adult novel The Book Thief; “It kills me sometimes, how people die.” Stranger In The Alps unpacks this, I think. Death is the sudden end, but its pretext stains everything, its clout chokes us, its shadow blinds us, its void cripples us; but it doesn’t replace us. We still love and laugh and cry and subside within the cracks, timeless yet stagnant, but it’s something.
Conor Oberst, Julien Baker, Elliott Smith, Mark Kozelek; all inform Stranger In The Alps without detracting from the rare intensity and charisma of its worldview. As a – sometimes unserious – meditation on death as an impersonal, consumptive force, rather than as a concerted confrontation of private grief, Bridgers has written something truly original and endurably vital.
Source : https://www.thefourohfive.com/music/article/phoebe-bridgers-stranger-in-the-alps-an-interview-with-and-feature-on-one-of-the-best-newcomers-of-2017-150