Phoebe Bridgers abides in “Stranger in the Alps”
Daniel O'Boyle | Friday, September 29, 2017
“The Big Lebowski” uses the “F-word” a total of 260 times.
How is this relevant to an excellent indie-folk debut album from an up-and-coming singer-songwriter? Well, in one iconic scene, John Goodman’s character Walter Sobchak smashes what he believes to be the car of a high-schooler who stole money from “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges). While destroying the car, Sobchak screams “This is what happens when you f— a stranger in the a–.” That line — like so many others in the film — is not suitable for daytime viewing on broadcast TV. Censors had to get a little creative.
“This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps.” It’s a little bit less 90s-slacker comedy. A little bit more, well, indie-folk. Anyway, Los Angeles singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers’s debut album is called “Stranger in the Alps.” And it’s very good.
In a year of fantastic albums from female singer-songwriters — with Jesca Hoop, Molly Burch, Nadia Reid and, of course, Laura Marling all producing some of the best work of 2017 — it’s hard to imagine Bridgers could stand out far above her peers. And yet “Stranger in the Alps” does just that. Bridgers’ record is one of the most captivating, emotional and genuine releases of the year. It’s also very sad.
“Stranger in the Alps” sounds more like the record you could imagine given the name without context, and less like an album named after a ridiculous attempt at censorship. The album is filled with heartbreaking songs, reminiscent of fellow Los Angeles native Elliott Smith.
“I’m obsessed with Elliott Smith, which is very common knowledge,” Bridgers told W Magazine earlier this month. That can be heard most clearly on the opening lines of “Scott Street,” which resembles the start of Smith’s “Alameda” before the song gradually builds into something more grandiose than anything Smith recorded, with swelling instrumentation and rising background noise from a busy street.
But Bridgers doesn’t need to overtly channel the master of depressing songs in order to make an emotional impact. On “Funeral,” Bridgers sings about performing at the funeral of a young man her age and reflects upon her life (“Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time”) before realizing she is thinking only of herself as a family grieves. The album’s opener, “Smoke Signals,” touches upon the deaths of David Bowie and Motorhead’s Lemmy between choruses where Bridgers croons about “burning trash on the beach” over a tune somewhat reminiscent of the opening theme of “Twin Peaks.”
But although death appears regularly — it also comes up in “Killer,” “Chelsea” and “Would you Rather” — it’s never at the center of Bridgers’ songs. Instead, loneliness is the main theme, with “Demi Moore’s” chorus of “Don’t wanna be alone / Don’t wanna be alone anymore,” guiding the album, much like similar thoughts guided almost all of Elliott Smith’s work.
But despite all of the sadness, Bridgers’ sense of humor is apparent in places, and that might just be what elevates this album from a great collection of sad songs to something more.
On “Smoke Signals,” Bridgers snidely compares a week away with an ex-boyfriend to Henry David Thoreau’s two-year retreat to Walden Pond (“I went with you up to / The place you grew up in / We spent a week in the cold / Just long enough to / “Walden” it with you / Any longer, it would have got old”) and sings about driving fast “because f— the cops.” On “Motion Sickness,” the most upbeat song on the album, she insults an ex with lines like, “Why do you sing with an English accent? / I guess it’s too late to change it now.”
That should be a little less surprising if you follow Bridgers on Twitter. Sadness is central to her brand, but Bridgers loves to make self-aware jokes about it. And that humor gives the listener just a little bit more connection to Bridgers’ life when she does go over the themes that so many singer-songwriters have tread over.
Bridgers’ humor alone certainly isn’t what makes this stand out even among other excellent albums released this year, but it plays a major part. It creates a deep personality behind the voice you hear on every song, helping to turn the album from a group of sad songs into snapshots into someone’s life.
Or to paraphrase “The Dude,” it really ties the album together.
Artist: Phoebe Bridgers
Album: “Stranger in the Alps”
Label: Dead Oceans
Favorite Track: “Motion Sickness,” “Scott Street,” “Killer”
If you like: Neil Young, Bright Eyes, Elliott Smith
Rating: 4.5 / 5