There’s a winnowing that comes from distance and absence, in a way that reduces our connections with a person, place, or thing to a series of images, portents, and memories. Those remainders linger with us as touchstones of something lost and departed. Stranger in the Alps, the new release from Artist of the Month Phoebe Bridgers, captures the sense of that winnowing, the longing for something missing but still inescapably present, in beautiful melodies and heartrending lyrics.
It’s a feeling given form by Bridgers’ stirring voice. With shades of Gillian Welch and Jenny Lewis, the young singer’s captivating vocal performance provides the backbone for the record. Sometimes her voice is clear and arresting, standing out starkly amid the pleasing arrangements underneath. At others, it’s double-tracked and full of echoes, creating an ethereal, otherworldly vibe that helps conjure the spooks and specters that populate almost every corner of the album.
Bridgers breaks bread with those phantoms throughout the record. On tracks like “Smoke Signals”, an opening triumph, or the slow-spun elegy of “Demi Moore”, she sings of individuals separated from one another in body but not in mind. The figures Bridgers calls to or inhabits are alternatively glad for the absence or waiting for a return, but either way, not truly rid of the moments and sentiments that have taken root.
But Strangers in the Alps is also full of introspection, not just missed connections. As much as Bridgers leaps between subject and object, drifting between voicing the spirit looming in the back of someone’s mind or recalling the lingering presence of one in her own, she also offers bits of frank, affecting self-reflection.
That’s clearest on tracks like “Funeral”, where Bridgers laments in plain terms, “Jesus Christ, I feel blue all the time/ And that’s just how I feel/ Always have, and I always will.” What keeps the tune from veering into the maudlin or trite is the sincerity of the lament and the perspective it’s wrapped in. Bridgers’ performance brings a certain hollowed-out heart to what could otherwise be a hoary sentiment, and the core of the song rests on the acknowledgement of how much worse others have it and yet how that realization only makes feeling bad feel even worse.
Musically, the album is a marriage of folk influences and more heavily produced, even dreamlike elements. The foundation of most songs on the album is a blend of acoustic guitar or overflowing piano, quickly joined by electric strums and softer strings. But wilder sound design elements flit in and out, like loud, rhythmic thumps or the sounds of a busy street.
Many of the tracks have a building quality, starting out sparse or simple as piece after piece of the sonic puzzle is added, until you’re humming along to the rhythmic pluck of a banjo or trying to catch a wisp of a theremin. On tracks like “Killer”, piano melodies drip with backmasked tones, evincing the hint of something slightly wrong beneath the beauty of the tune that fits with its themes.
The album’s also full of interesting cadences, both in terms of the rhythms employed and Bridgers’ verses. Her words sometimes spill out over the meter and convey the messiness of a thought in a way that matches the rough-hewn sentiment of a song. These arrangements complement her voice beautifully. Multiple tracks feature intricate guitar-picking sequences, while Bridgers sings out with a voice that reverberates in the spaces between the notes.
She enlists the help of similarly situated singers like John Doe (who harmonizes on “Killer”) and Conor Oberst (who trades lines with Bridgers on “Would You Rather”), each of whom brings a sense of mature validation to the youthful but earnest dirges on the album. Bridgers also name-drops Bowie, Lemmy, and even Jeffrey Dahmer, projecting the image of an old soul.
But old souls need rest and sometimes absolution, and Bridgers seems to be seeking a bit of that on the record. There’s repeated motifs of dissolved relationships, some sadly lost and some not so sadly. Those accounted from track-to-track are either trying to remember or trying to forget, but either way feeling the passage of time.
Despite the fact that Stranger in the Alps ends with stories of prisoners, murderers, and arsonists, it’s a gentle, wistful, even mournful record that makes for an outstanding coming-out party for Bridgers and a haunting experience for the listener, with melodies and sentiments that linger, softly and poignantly, long after the music ends.
Essential Tracks: “Smoke Signals”, “Funeral”, and “Killer”