Stranger in the Alps

Band/Artist: Phoebe Bridgers
Album:Stranger in the Alps
Best song: “Funeral” is the best song on this album, but the first four songs are all near-perfect.
Worst song:I don’t love the cover of “You Missed My Heart”

In the summer, I had a nice run of keeping this site up and I really thought I was going to keep it up. I would say that I was busy or I had something better to do, but I didn’t. I last wrote here in August and it’s now December. I’ve listened to and bought a lot of records in that time, but I haven’t written about them.

Just taking a glance at my Last.fm thing speaks to my mindset over the last three months and, folks, it is not good. I’ve spent the nine-plus months wallowing – as I imagine every has – in the confusion of the repetitive nature of this time. Let me repeat the things we all know and have said: Every day feels the same, the disappointment in how everything’s been handled here, the loneliness of seeing holidays pass, the weirdness of constantly staring into a screen… It just feels terrible overall. Always. I’m not a well-adjusted person in normal times. This time has moved me into a hopeless mess.

There is this constant joke about “sad boy” music for much of my adult life that has somewhat been turned on its head with the recent popularity of sad girl music of various types that have flourished online. I’ve written about Lana del Rey and whatever she’s doing, but I imagine the world of less-produced and more decidedly indie artists are more in line with the sad girl genre. My first instinct is to connect a lot of the aethstetics to the indie rock world of the mid 2000s (as a lot of these women are young enough to have come up through that time), but my perspective is skewed largely by my own age, male gaze and move away from that world with my move more into the metal world.

(I should reiterate I’m a hopeless mess and my brain feels like it is slowly smoothing during this isolation from the world. Take anything I write with a Lot’s wife-sized grain of salt.)

If “sad girl” is a genre (it isn’t), Phoebe Bridgers is the genre’s apex of recent vintage. Vocally sunnier than Cat Power (the giant of this genre I made up two paragraphs ago), but decidedly more accessible than bands like War Paint, Bridgers presents as Taylor Swift, but more honest. While I’m a Swift fan, her music is decidedly more sonically optimistics, her lyrics more presented than conversational. Nearly every dumb comparison I’ve heard between Swift and Bridgers is some kind of teen movie construct (theater kids/goth kids, popular/unpopular, etc), so I’d like to refrain from infantializing grown women or putting them in some competitive construct (though I realize I’m doing that somewhat by making sonic and lyric contrasts). I love both artists’ music, they just scratch different itches.

Let me pause to say that one thing that’s struck me about Bridgers is her accessibility and my general wonder that her youth is such that she spent her teen and adult years with social media, a force that allows (forces) celebrities to be more accessible. I hadn’t thought about it much before I watched a too-long video of a conversation between Bridgers and Lars Ulrich.

Bridgers’ acceptance of social media as an everyday part of life contrasts quite a bit with Ulrich’s outright confusion about it; age seems to be the defining factor. It reflects in their Napster conversation, as well, in that Bridgers gets the whole frustration, but her whole professional life has largely been within the construct of the streaming age, which contrasts with the breadth of Ulrich’s life (which has roller coastered through the piracy world and has made him a millionaire many times over).

So much of our lives, especially during this supercharged technological age, relies on dealing with the structures around us. Bridgers doesn’t sweat the idea of tweeting whatever or revealing too much; social media has been a constant since she was a child. While it upended the world, it has always been part of her life. Her whole life has been online. It’s not interesting or new, it’s just life.

I came to Bridgers’ first record by way of her cover of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” which itself came into the world as a Twitter joke (see above as to why Bridgers is the kind of person who honors her Twitter jokes).

And so it happened, in that she and friend/singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers recorded the song and released it 10 days later. “Iris” is a song that was written under dumb circumstances (as a soundtrack song about an angel stuck on earth in a movie starring Nick Cage during one of his most cocaine-y performances) and yet is an iconic song of the era. And yet, it’s a beautifully-written song that sticks in your head and was begging for a an artist better than the Goo Goo Dolls doing it.

Bridgers and Rogers are the perfect duo for it. It’s a gorgeous song now.

While I said I came to her via “Iris,” I should note that I had heard Bridgers’ name bandied around for a few years, as Stranger in the Alps had been an indie darling record for a while. As a Bright Eyes skeptic, I think I vaguely knew that she was associated with Conor Oberst and subconsciously rejected her because of that.

This, of course, was monumentaly stupid.

Stranger in the Alps, first, is named after the best shit ever: The fact that line “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass” got turned into “This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps” (a line that makes no sense) in the broadcast-friendly version of The Big Lebowski. My friends from HS and I joke about that change to this day.

But, as a record, Stranger in the Alps is Elliott Smith (who she considers a major influence) redux, in that Bridgers has the easy conversational lyrical style coupled with the adeptness of guitar work that pics through chords in an evocative way unlike almost any musician. I’d even dare say that her use of keyboards and atmospheric sounds — a bit of percussion here, a set of strings here, a banjo there — surpasses Smith’s attempts at similar arrangements. The banjo bits in “Demi Moore,” the tape manipulation seconds into “Smoke Signals” and the feedback in “Funeral” all add bits of color and evocative emotion to records that already stand on their own.

Because, ultimately, that is what Smith and Bridgers so share: Their songwriting holds up among good arrangements or less than good arrangements. I have less love for XO and Figure 8 than I do for other Smith albums because his arrangements didn’t fit as well as I’d prefer; it always sounded like he and frequent collaborator Jon Brion were just a little off in the way the records were produced. Hearing the songs from those records in acoustic settings spoke to the beauty in the lyrics, melodies and guitar work.

Bridgers’ work has that and more. I’ve got a lot of time in these quarantine times, so I’ve watched a lot of videos of Bridgers playing these songs live with less accompaniment. The songs hold up.

Take “Motion Sickness.” Perhaps the greatest “fuck you” song of recent vintage, Bridgers has not been shy telling people that the subject of the song is, in fact, noted serial abuser and complete dirtbag Ryan Adams. Knowing that, the lyrics are perfect vicious, from the opening verse establishing both the predator/prey relationship they had (“I hate you for what you did/and I miss you like a little kid”) to straight-up telling the man he’s a bad lay (“I faked it every time”) to then establishing the damage he inflicted (“I can hardly feel anything, I hardly feel anything at all”). That is, in fact, all in the first verse, though the song later cuts Adams down more (noting the age difference in the bridge and asing “why do you sing with an English accent?”).

“Motion Sickness” is part of the greatest four-song opening to an album in recent memory. “Smoke Signals” evokes almost French mid-century cinema in its somber description of vignettes of a relationship, each a moment in time. Like Smith, she paints a picture in abstract, from the tentpole lamentations of dead 70s musicians to her wistful request to “Live in a Holiday Inn, where somebody else makes the bed.” Over a lovely chord progression and tentpole rhythms, her easy lyrics are comfortable as the song feels like a blanket of melancholy. “Demi Moore” ends this four-song run, but it more aptly describes a moment in time and showcases Bridgers’ ease of storytelling. Her use of accessible language establishing the parameters of the song’s subject — sexting — starts in the first lyric: “take a dirty picture, babe,” but devolves into regret, then fear. The 180 of feeling sexy then paranoid is rendered in wistful but despondent tones, culminating in the almost juxtaposed final lyrics:

And, yet, the albums’s best song is the third in this four-song chronology. Sung over picked and arpeggiated guitar, “Funeral” frames the depths in a gutting series of scenes that feel exactly like depression; the chorus has Bridgers outlining the most desperate-yet-matter-of-fact observation “Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time” and resolves with the fatalistics “always have and I always will.” But, it also deals with the dealmaking that functional depressives experience, as the verses even bookend the notion that someone’s got it worse. Indeed, the song begins with “I’m singing at a funeral tomorrow, For a kid a year older than me” and ends with her dismissing her own sadness, singing “I remembered someone’s kid is dead.”

It’s why the song so describes this moment in time so well. Though the song is from 2017, it feels like the soundtrack to quarantine.

I talk to people for a living. Before we record shows with non-staff guests, the regular conversational pleasantries are exchanged on Zoom and I’m never quite comfortable with my answer to “how are you?” Because I’m bad. We’re all bad. Jesus christ, I’m so blue all the time.

But, that’s not really the way to talk to people who just want “I’m doing OK” or “I’m doing well.” Earlier in the pandemic, there was a lot of “I’m healthy and I’ve got a job” and so on, but that only goes so far. We’re nine months into this nightmare and the walls are closing in on most of us. I’m a professional, so I am not looking like fucking Eeyore when I’m supposed to be hosting a news analysis show; we recently released our 200th show and I’m proudest that I’ve done approximately 190 of them in quarantine without sounding like the world’s biggest bummer. But it fucking sucks. You know it and I know it.

There is commonality in feeling this way, of course. I’m a journalist, so I’m addicted to Twitter and there is a notion online that “it’s OK to be not OK right now” that echoes from other online-damaged people.

I should say that December Ross doesn’t really agree with July Ross right now. Yes, I still appreciate Amanda’s honesty, but I take no satisfaction in everyone else being in the same boat. Solidarity with other depressed people doesn’t make me feel better, in fact, it just makes me feel bad for those people, too.

This week, we recorded a show with a guest who asked the usual question; I don’t blame him for doing so, as it is what adults do on professional podcast recordings, even during this ecstatically weird time in history. And I responded in kind, as I am wont to do, noting that while it’s hard, at least I haven’t gotten sick (someone close to me had a mild case in the last few weeks and is recovered, but I was shared shitless when I found out).

Part of being depressed, in my experience, is even feeling like my own depression is not worth elevating to something “important.” it’s why it took me until November to even attempt to get back into therapy (this process is ongoing because of our psychedelically difficult to navigate health care system). It drops one’s self-regard down to the “well, other people matter more than I do” level.

Wishing I was someone else, feeling sorry for myself When I remembered someone’s kid is dead

The rest of the record is gorgeous, of course. “Killer” is the song that put Bridgers on the map and it’s a beautiful portrait of toxicity that really connects, while Oberst’s guest track “Would You Rather” is Wishing I was someone else, feeling sorry for myself When I remembered someone’s kid is another lugubrious slice of Bridgers’ childhood (this time, her family life is further explored). “Scott Street” and “Georgia” are more upbeat highlights; really, the whole record is good.

But that four-song start is the best I’ve heard in ages. She’s Elliott Smith for a new age, a songwriter who creates a whole universe in her guitar and voice.

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