Phoebe Bridgers fixates on boredom and death on her debut full-length Stranger in the Alps. The 22-year-old Los Angeles singer-songwriter is looking for a way out, but the entire album is not as morbid as that sounds.
Through ambiguous narratives across 10 ethereal indie folk songs, she expresses a desire for change in her mundane circumstances. On “Smoke Signals”, she recalls “Singing ‘Ace of Spades’ when Lemmy died, but nothing’s changed. L.A.’s all right.” This line comes off like a lament. In the same song, she continues: “It’s been on my mind since Bowie died, just checking out to hide from life.” On “Demi Moore”, another pop culture reference, she confesses, “I don’t want to be stoned anymore. Don’t want to be alone anymore.” But she doesn’t seem to do much to remedy her boredom except petty, reckless activities. “All of our problems, I’m gonna solve them with you riding shotgun, speeding ‘cause fuck the cops.”
Despite the subjects of death and the ennui that arises from boredom, Bridgers doesn’t always take herself too seriously. Even just looking at the album cover, which features a person in a comical ghost costume with a rainbow shooting from their head, reveals as much. Her sadness and sense of hopelessness never feel pummeling. She is aware of her drama in other ways too. “Funeral” opens with her having sung at a funeral for a kid one year older than herself. Fast-forward in the story, and she blacks out in her car one night, finds herself waking up in her childhood bed feeling sorry for herself and wishing she was someone else. That is, until she remembers that “someone’s kid is dead.” This passage immediately follows another in which she describes her one friend whom she calls when she bores herself to tears. “And we talk until we think we might just kill ourselves. But then we laugh until it disappears.” Humour seems to pull Bridgers through.
In only a few lines, Bridgers contradicts herself in a way that becomes difficult to ignore for the rest of the album. She claims she “can hardly feel anything at all.” Considering how much she lingers on being bored and feeling stuck in her place, these lyrics ring hollow. And what a line to drop on lead single “Motion Sickness”: The song contains the closest thing on the album to a pop groove and crescendo. On the immediately following track “Funeral”, she says, “Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time, and that’s just how I feel. Always have and always will.”
Despite the major contradiction and arguable melodrama, musically, Stranger in the Alps contains many bright moments. Her voice seldom varies on the album – it mostly rests on an aloof plateau – but she is fluid at times. The line “I have emotional motion sickness” laps up on itself with the repeated “motion” before rolling out with the word “sickness”, like a tide pulling back before washing farther ashore.
Subtlety can cause a song or entire album to sound like it’s at a standstill, but Bridgers often makes subtlety work in her favour. Hear details such as the banjos that top whistling ambience on “Demi Moore”. The sleepy, weepy, mostly acoustic “Scott Street” resembles pieces from Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot complete with ringing bells.
If anyone knows about emotionally honest indie folk, it’s Conor Oberst who appears on “Would You Rather”. Another one of Alps’ best moments conjures the image of Bridgers playing piano unaccompanied by anything other than a bit of background vocals under a spotlight on “Killer”. It sounds like it could belong on You Are Free by Cat Power whom she opened for in Utah this past August. But these songs can be taken as negatives insofar as some of Alps’ most dynamic moments are ones that bring other specific artists to mind.
“I feel pretty confident that I’m finding my voice,” Bridgers said in a statement to her label Dead Oceans. (There’s her self-awareness again.) Stranger in the Alps contains enough glimmers of talent that it’s easy to believe once she’s seen a bit more of the world and done a bit more as an artist, she will return with a stronger second effort.
by Leslie Ken Chu