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Phoebe's new album "Stranger In the Alps" appeared on our Top Albums Of 2017 list and countless others.

“That song will creep you out until you’re dead”—this line from “Smoke Signals” is a quintessential Phoebe Bridgers-ism. Technically, these lyrics refer to The Smiths’ song, “How Soon is Now,” which is admittedly creepy in its moody rumination on the incompatible inevitabilities of endless desire for love and endless loneliness. But, these words also subtly capture the spirit and effect of the twenty-three year old LA songwriter’s own work. Stranger in the Alps, the debut full-length from Bridgers, is unflinchingly morose, although certainly not hokey or absurd, in its fixated exploration of dark obsessions and persistent malaise. It very well might “creep you out until you’re dead,” and that is its gently unnerving power.

Stranger in the Alps begins and ends with slow-turning expositions of an underlying theme: isolation. “Smoke Signals” gives the listener vignettes from a relationship between two individuals caught in a close-knit web of unknowability. As they sit in the car, listening to the aforementioned Smiths’ song, Bridgers sings:

"And you, you must have been looking for me Sending smoke signals”

Even just feet apart, the song’s two characters are profoundly divorced by a distance not entirely physical. Smoke signals signify an attempt to break out of the confines of isolation—the feeling that one cannot know another or be known by another, as encapsulated by the song’s closing words:

“You are anonymous I am a concrete wall”

In this posthumous reflection upon attempted non-isolation, the aftermath is just more isolation—unknowability and unshakeable barriers against connection. And that grimness holds out through the album’s de facto closer, “You Missed My Heart.” A narrative depiction of a murder-rape scenario originally written/recorded by Mark Kozelek and then made even darker and more grotesque by Bridgers, this song dramatically illustrates the extremity of isolation. Both of the story’s victims say to their attacker, “You missed my heart.” The sadness of Bridgers’s own songs and her interpretation of this one is not dysfunction, or even violence, in relationships. It is the underlying sense of isolation that curtails any profound human connection within a relationship—between lover and lover, or even killer and victim.

For all its delving into isolationist depths, Stranger in the Alps is not an album of resignation. It is a work of recognition, of witness. Bridgers subtly names the experience of feeling alone, of struggling to navigate love made hopeless by barriers of isolation. On “Scott Street,” she captures the sense of isolation from the familiar—not just from a person, but more prominently from places. Although she witnesses to her own “feeling like a stranger,” the song ends with a refrain of resistance:

“Anyway, don’t be a stranger”

The song might sound like it’s addressed to a former lover, and it very well might be, but that final admonition could just as easily be self-directed. “Don’t be a stranger” might translate to “don’t give up.” Not giving up, though, does not imply an attempted negation or an ignorance of the negative. Bridgers captures this tentative balance of witness and resistance on “Funeral”:

“I have a friend I call
When I’ve bored myself to tears
And we talk until we think that we might just kill ourselves
But then we laugh until it disappears”

Phoebe Bridgers writes song that very well might “creep you out until you’re dead,” but the creep-effect is the power of an articulate witness of the human capacity to build walls of isolation that can prevent us from loving well, and at our worst, prod us towards killing. This work of witness is an effort of honesty, but not of despair. Like the desperate conversation between friends in “Funeral,” these songs are about assessing the state of affairs and choosing not to die. This makes way for living through the creepiness with some bravery, which is another name for honesty, which really means witness.

—Daniel Hickey

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April 2018
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