On one hand, Phoebe Bridgers’ debut album features desperately downcast lyrics like “Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time / And that’s just how I feel / Always have and always will.” On the other, the singer-songwriter’s website resides at phoebefuckingbridgers.com, and the title of Stranger In The Alps is a nod to the ludicrously edited-for-TV version of The Big Lebowski. Maybe these glimpses of humor are just Bridges trying to let the world know that she’s actually okay. Because listening to this mortally sad, yet frequently magical debut, you might be led to believe she’s irretrievably despondent.
But Bridgers’ melancholy is her truest artistic friend, and she taps that deep well for some incredibly strong songs that are presented gracefully whether she’s keeping things austere or adding orchestral color. Stranger starts with an unstoppable pair of singles in the swirling “Smoke Signals” and the album’s most upbeat moment, “Motion Sickness.” The former indicates an album that could’ve gone a much different way: Two clicks slicker and a bit of a dance beat, and it might be a mainstream hit ballad for someone like Ellie Goulding. But Bridgers keeps it intimate, complete with references to dead heroes—Bowie, Lemmy—and songs about loneliness (specifically The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now”). “Motion Sickness,” meanwhile, offers the album’s only real hopping pulse and singalong chorus.
After that, it’s on to a trio of songs that will receive inevitable, justified, and flattering comparisons to another sad L.A. troubadour, Elliott Smith. “Funeral,” “Demi Moore,” and “Scott Street” are all clearly indebted to Smith—particularly that last one, which begins with a line that’s almost a direct tribute: “Walking Scott Street feeling like a stranger / with an open heart, open container.” Even though it’s close, it’s not slavish, and Bridgers pulls off the rare trick of emulating someone so singular and delicate without losing the emotion. “Killer” might even be more brutally beautiful than some of Smith’s best; on it, Bridgers is joined by X frontman John Doe, whom she asks to “kiss my rotten head and pull the plug.”
If this all sounds like a depressing slog, it’s actually quite the opposite: Like the best sad-bastard music, Stranger In The Alps alchemizes sorrow into redemptive beauty. It’s never about wallowing, but about slowly moving through it. That difference, played out over some incredible, wise-beyond-her-years songwriting, makes it one of the best albums of the year.