Drowning In Phoebe Bridgers’ Brutal, Minimal Debut ‘Stranger In The Alps’

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Phoebe Bridgers drowns over and over on her debut album, Stranger In The Alps. She drowns in her dreams; then she wakes up and drowns in love and alcohol and smoke and death and her past. And she drowned me, too. When I first heard the album I was stuck in an unrequited love, and the combination purged everything else from my system as if no other melodies or feelings had ever existed — an endless horizon of blue. And no matter how frantically I tried to swim away, the album smacked like a white-capped whip, and thrust me back under.

Bridgers is a 21-year-old singer-songwriter from Los Angeles. That might conjure a certain image and sound, especially as Miley Cyrus finds a muse in Malibu and Julia Michaels slips her fingerprints on every other pop song. California stereotypes are youthful exuberance, sun-kissed guitars, and synths swelling as immaculately azure as waves. But Bridgers feels like a product of the other coast; her voice is windswept and muted; her lyricism is cold and blobby and blurry, until it crashes in torrents of brutal heartbreak.

The first three songs off Stranger In The Alps are maybe the most sublime, devastating thirteen consecutive minutes of music you’ll hear this year. Each song is a grand opus and one third of a crushing narrative arc; an arc that I lived this summer.

“Smoke Signals,” the first song, begins at the peak of a romance. “I went with you up to the place you grew up in / We spent a week in the cold,” are the first whispered lines, and immediately we’re submerged in the vivid imagery of two deeply intertwined lives — from rebellious joyrides, to Smiths listening sessions, to peaceful reservoir walks. There’s no linear narrative, just shards of memories wafting in and out of illogical jumbles. As an entry point into her artistry, it’s extremely disorienting.

But then, you learn intimately and quickly about someone’s past at the moment you’re falling in love with them, and all those memories collapse into a dizzying horizon. I met a girl in June, and for a few nights our lives folded in like crisp bed sheets. Each detail — her love for old fashioneds and boat rides and dumb Snapchat puns, her stories about her depressive cousin and her father who left his siblings and carried his life on his back across three continents to America — mingled and coalesced into my single obsession. It was impossible to tell any of the details apart. I fell in love with the centuries of her family before she was born and the rappers that punctured our eardrums in sweaty warehouses and the Italian meatballs we wolfed down and the bridge she dropped her phone off, shattering in the incoming traffic below.

When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags, as my favorite TV show rhapsodizes. And when Bridgers sticks her head out the car window on the second song “Motion Sickness,” expecting fresh air and clarity, she instead finds nothing but nausea. Suddenly, she’s not a participant put a passenger, watching a landscape whip past. And while the guitars had billowed wispily on “Smoke Signals,” suddenly they churn, aggressive and distorted. She’s trying hard to be cool about her crumbling relationship: “I hardly feel anything,” she declares diffidently. But by the time the chorus arrives, in a tortured flush of harmony, she’s singing a different story: “There are no words in the English language / I could scream to drown you out.”

As I was writing 500 words a day that summer, interviewing musicians and playwrights and architects, she would appear at the end of every sentence, just under the blinking cursor. I would go to concerts and parties and invite her and she would say yes, and then back out at the last minute and I would bring a friend or another girl, and it would keep happening for weeks. There wasn’t a fight or a bad day — at least, from what I could tell. It was more that she was on her own voyage and had forgotten, or maybe just didn’t care, that I was strapped into the backseat. I kept gulping down bottle after bottle, as I felt her specter beside me in packed rooms.

So I turned to Stranger In The Alps for comfort and empathy. Bridgers not only accepts but embraces this sort of mundane sadness (mixed with borderline alcoholism); there she is day-drinking alone in public in “Scott Street” and getting way too high at 4 AM in “Demi Moore.” While it was the lyricism that pulled me in, the gorgeous production kept me coming back. “Stranger In The Alps” achieves its minimalism through a stunning and meticulous attention to detail, especially with regard to her guitars. Each one is carefully deployed to match each mood: Thick and oozing on “Motion Sickness,” bone dry on “Funeral,” jangling and quaint on “Would You Rather.” Somber strings and insistent hi hats enter at just the right moments, and there are whistles and magisterial choirs and foghorns and claves that sound like they’ve been run through six reverb pedals.

But as I waded deep into the album, I realized there was one thing I didn’t quite understand. My sadness only really waded into muted disaffection — my vitals were fine. Bridgers, on the other hand, kept losing her ability to breathe. “Now I can’t breathe and I can’t sleep,” she sings on “Demi Moore.” And overwhelmingly the culprit for her breathlessness is water, wholly immersive and blue water, which surrounds her on the beaches of “Smoke Signals” and looms as a drowning threat in “Killer” and pours down in “Georgia.” It seemed like a melodramatic cliche.

But the water came for me too.

On the night I told myself I was finished with her I went to sleep, and she appeared in my dreams, silently beckoning across the tracks of the 125th street subway. When I woke up groggily the next morning, it was pouring, and I trudged down into the very same station. There’s a special type of misery on that morning commute, contained in people half-asleep, cramped and sore, begging this portion of the day to be over. It was especially awful that particular morning, my shoes muddied on the damp, speckled floor, my umbrella dripping onto my khakis as the windows fogged over. It felt like a sauna of sweat. And in that humid, rickety car I switched on the third song, “Funeral.”

I’m singing at a funeral tomorrow
For a kid a year older than me
And I’ve been talking his dad
It makes me so sad
When I think about it too much I can’t breathe

I have this dream where I’m screaming underwater
While my friends are all waving from the shore
And I don’t need for you to tell me what that means
I don’t believe in that stuff anymore

Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time
And that’s just how I feel
Always have, always will
Always have, always will

If there’s a more crushing song from this year than “Funeral,” I haven’t heard it. You can hear Bridgers’ torment in the face of death; you can also hear her self-loathing as she realizes the heartbreak of “Motion Sickness” is self-absorbed and trivial. But other people’s sadness doesn’t make your own minute sadness any less sad. And when Phoebe reached the second chorus my eyes welled up — and I realized that she wasn’t leaving the inside of my chest, like a smoldering cigarette butt lodged at the bottom of my windpipe, and I forgot how to breathe. I was a soggy corpse sixteen feet under trapped in a cramped metal box surrounded by 200 other skeletons suffocated by their own dead kids broken marriages lifeless jobs shower beers and payment plans. And while we grieved from our various small ailments, a hurricane bubbled up along the gulf coast, and it was a distant intangible and fantastical myth until it swallowed Houston whole, tore roofs off homes and ripped swiftly down freeways, sweeping up the homeless, slowly rising on nursing home patients and stranding them waist deep soaked and parched all at once.

You’d think Bridgers would end the whole sorry tale with a clean, devastating resolution. And the last proper song of the album, “You Missed My Heart,” seems to promise just that, weaving an epic tale through a bloody heartbroken revenge stabbing, a prison chase and a murder trial. But instead of a dramatic cut-to-black, her last words are a strangely neutral description repeated over and over: “Down river from the Moundsville prison graveyard.” And I didn’t get any closure either, just delayed texts from expressing indecision and regret. I felt like an apple slowly being whittled to the core.

After the final fadeout, a bright guitar enters with the chords of “Smoke Signals” again. It’s a tiny yet overpowering reminder of how captivating that the first blush of love is; it sounds like floating on your back of a perfectly still lake at sunrise, as the water laps serenely and glistens around you. And so there’s nothing left to do but start the album over.

Strangers In The Alps is out tomorrow, 9/22 via Dead Oceans. Get it here.