Indie singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers was born in Los Angeles and studied vocal jazz at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts. Bridgers grew up with parents who were involved in the entertainment industry – her mother encouraged her to busk and took her to the farmers market to busk.
After opening for Julien Baker’s 2016 East Coast tour, Bridgers released her debut album Stranger in the Alps in 2017, to widespread critical acclaim. Bridgers followed Stranger in the Alps with two collaborative projects – a record as Boygenius with Baker and Lucy Dacus, then a duo with Conor Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center.
The impact of Bridgers’ music often comes from juxtaposing her dulcet voice with extremely depressing lyrics. She’s often compared to Elliott Smith, and she’s also acknowledged the influence of 1970s artists like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, and Tom Waits.
Phoebe Bridgers Album Reviews
Stranger in the Alps
Stranger in the Alps is an astonishingly assured debut from Bridgers – expressing angst while retaining her poise. Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska produce and provide much of the instrumentation, and they do a great job of providing enough variation to keep the record moving without overwhelming Bridgers’ pristine vocals – Stranger in the Alps ranges from sparse meditations to full band arrangements like ‘Motion Sickness’. Guests include vocals from Conor Oberst and John Doe, while the album title is taken from The Big Lebowski. Phoebe Bridgers had earlier made the Killer EP with Ryan Adams, and two of its three songs are used again here.
Adams is also the subject of one of the record’s key tracks – ‘Motion Sickness’ presents a nuanced dialogue about Bridgers’ relationship with Adams, opening with the line “I hate you for what you did/And I miss you like a little kid.” Bridgers is able to deliver a depressed lyric with a musically gorgeous arrangement on ‘Funeral’, while ‘Scott Street’ has a beautiful chord sequence. The ominous, piano-led ‘Georgia’ is a great change of pace, while the record closes with a cover, Bridgers’ take on Mark Kozelek’s ‘You Missed My Heart’.
Stranger in the Alps is such a strong debut album that Bridgers could well enjoy a successful career without ever bettering it.
Female artists Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, and Phoebe Bridgers had never all been in the same room together when they decided to form a band. The three are all at a similar career stage, but have different approaches to indie; Dacus is more rock-oriented, Baker specialises in emotional slow-core, and Bridgers plays poised folk-rock. With three distinct personalities, they sound full of vitality when they sing in tandem. The three named their project boygenius after a type of self-confident male they’d all encountered in the music business.
boygenius is a six song EP; each of the writers bought in a completed song. The opening rocker ‘Bite The Hand’ is from Dacus, ‘Me & My Dog’ is from Bridgers, while ‘Stay Down’ is one of my favourite Baker tunes. Additionally, the three worked on each other’s incomplete ideas, enjoying the mutually supportive environment.
It’s difficult for an EP to make the same impression as an album, but these songs are strong, and it’s a great taster for three talented writers.
Better Oblivion Community Center – Better Oblivion Community Center
Unusually for a solo artist, Phoebe Bridgers has followed up her acclaimed 2017 album Stranger in the Alps with two collaborative efforts. The second was 2019’s Better Oblivion Community Center with Conor Oberst. It’s an odd combination – a collaboration between a bright young talent and a veteran best known for his albums as Bright Eyes in the early 2000s. You’d expect a tossed-off fun record from such a pairing, saving their best material for solo records, but instead Better Oblivion Community Center is a delight. The pair sing beautifully together, and the songs they’ve written together fulfill the cover’s promise of “ten captivating stories”. My favourite story is about the dead friend who used to sing “que sera sera” with a straight face.
Musically, Better Oblivion Community Center is so very much an indie record that it could be used to define the genre in a college course – it has the idiosyncratic singing (Bridgers is fine, but Oberst’s voice has more than a hint of bray), the low-key instrumentation, and the cryptic lyrics. First single ‘Dylan Thomas’ is a good snapshot of the duo’s sound – Thomas is mentioned in passing, but the harmonies are gorgeous. The duo’s foray into synth-pop in ‘Exception to the Rule’ isn’t as satisfying as their other songs, but still works.
Better Oblivion Community Center is surprisingly enjoyable – two artists giving their best to a satisfying collaboration.
After a couple of collaborative efforts, Bridgers is back as a solo artist for Punisher, although Davis, Baker, and Oberst all contribute vocals. Where A Stranger in the Alps was emotional and acoustic, Punisher pushes Bridgers into different territory, more eclectic and more electronic. These songs are subtler than before, but while I prefer Bridger’s crystalline voice in an acoustic setting, it does a great job of expanding her sonic palette.
The stream-of-consciousness lyrics recalls the songwriting confidence of peak-era Neil Young or Bob Dylan. Seemingly disconnected images paopulate these tracks. Most infamous is ‘Moon Song’ with its line “We hate Tears in Heaven/But it’s sad that his baby died” – which has upset the Eric Clapton fans paying attention.
Lead single ‘Kyoto’ was originally one of the gentlest songs on the record, but Bridger’s producer persuaded her to turn it into an upbeat number with horns and an insistent beat. Where Stranger sounded warm and welcoming, Punisher is often cold and unsettling, although the opening ramble of ‘DVD Menu/Garden Song’ and the countrified ‘Graceland Too’ will both probably satisfy Strangers fans.
While I don’t enjoy Punisher as much as Stranger – it certainly takes longer to enjoy – Bridgers seems destined to be a major artist who’ll be round for the long haul, and Punisher is a fascinating record that deepens her artistry.
Best Phoebe Bridgers Songs
Back to 2010s Album Reviews….