Review Summary: lost
I’ve been stationed on a naval vessel for quite some time, and one thing you end up realizing about being out at sea is that you really have to cherish the limited number of hobbies you can occupy your time with. This mostly encompasses the artistic or entertainment-related stuff, from video games to music to reading to movies. But without wifi at my disposal, I’ve had no choice but to appreciate and get lost in the albums and songs I do
have. It’s especially true of the records that display a stunning command of atmosphere, the records that suck you into their own unique world when there’s no other world in real life to get sucked into. But, to be frank, Stranger in the Alps
is not an album whose “world” provides much positive encouragement or an array uplifting ditties. So why, then, is this sad collection of indie folk tunes the one I’ve listened to the most during my time on board the ship this year"
Because it’s a soothing, comforting sort of sadness that’s just as calming as it is melancholic. The strange thing about this record is that - as a number of people have stated already - Phoebe Bridgers is incredibly upfront about her downbeat subject matter. She won’t beat around the bush. She won’t try and bullshit the listener. Yet somehow (unlike her fellow indie folk companion Julien Baker), she sounds oddly self-assured. The unusually upbeat chorus of the somewhat high-tempo “Motion Sickness” actually sounds a bit triumphant when heard through Bridgers’ higher register, for instance. And even in the most downplayed moments of the experience, there’s a kind of conviction in her voice and her guitar playing that’s just mesmerizing. The cover of Sun Kil Moon’s “You Missed My Heart” features, quite literally, the exact same chord progression throughout its entire runtime and never gets boring because of Bridgers’ elegant vocal performance and the little instrumental flourishes she so subtly uses.
Those flourishes are a big factor in why Stranger in the Alps
is so incredible, though. Opener “Smoke Signals” immediately sets the tone, blending clean-channel echo-swathed guitars with the light glaze of symphonic strings that sound like they came straight from Vespertine
. From the first time that sad, draining motif hits the ears, the mix of sadness and beauty is intoxicating. The same thing happens when you reach “Funeral,” and “Demi Moore,” which drive that feeling further. The former has one of the best intros in recent memory - complete with a bleak cluster of distorted amp/guitar effects that really (well, presumably) wring out that feeling of being on your deathbed - while the latter uses the theremin to generate the same feeling of alienation that The Beach Boys’ “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” did with that instrument. The great thing about this album, though, is that Bridgers is capable of being both reflective and brutally honest at the same time. She doesn’t linger on either of those traits too long to get repetitive, as she alternates between them frequently to juggle the album’s themes and ideas around a bit.
Still, I haven’t entirely answered that question in the first paragraph. Maybe the reason I’ve listened to Stranger in the Alps
so much on while underway is because there’s so much relatability in the fact that Bridgers supports her subtle and organic brand of folk with such a strong dose of honesty. Maybe vice versa, even. And maybe, as I said in the beginning, it’s all about cherishing the atmosphere and the fine little details when have the time to really sit down and listen. All I can say is that I haven’t felt this relaxed and self-assured listening to such a depressing and even cathartic release in a long time. A perfect score might be a bit hyperbolic, especially for such a new release, but it’s hard to imagine what else to give it. And considering this is only Bridgers’ first full-length, my mind is racing at the possibilities of how she’ll harness her penchant for hypnotic melancholy next time around.