A Familiar Face in the Alps
Words by Corinne Bates
Deluxe editions often feel self-indulgent. They are usually one of two things: a last-ditch attempt at recognition, or an effort to placate fans begging for new music. Phoebe Bridgers seems to have narrowly escaped these traps with the deluxe edition of her debut LP “Stranger in the Alps,” which feels more like a present for the people who helped her along during her breakout year than anything else.
Instead of releasing the edition on the anniversary of the original, Sept. 22, Bridgers waited until Oct. 12, the anniversary of Tom Petty’s death. She went even further in paying tribute to Petty by including a cover of his song, “It’ll All Work Out.” She integrates the song perfectly by injecting the same “Twin Peaks” ambiance that permeates the whole album.
Bridgers stayed true to the phrase “you have your whole life to write your first record.” The album features reimaginings of “Georgia” and “Killer,” which were previously recorded by Ryan Adams and released under his label Pax Am in 2015. The newer version of “Georgia” loses much of the raw emotion found in the original track to overindulgent production and “ooo”’s. While the new “Killer” delves even deeper by replacing Bridgers’ acoustic guitar with a melancholic piano and backing vocals from Los Angeles punk singer, John Doe.
The first song on the album, “Smoke Signals,” which was released in Jan. 2017 as the first single, was likely the catalyst for Bridgers being signed by Dead Oceans just a few months later. It is hauntingly beautiful in its ability to transport the listener. The layered vocals mixed with ambient guitar and violin makes the song feel like a gentle smoke signal being sent from a fog-filled beach mimicking the chorus, “You must have been searching for me/ Sending smoke signals/ Pelicans circling/ Burning trash out on the beach.”
Not all of Bridgers songs are purely sad. The Ryan Adams diss track, “Motion Sickness” perfectly encapsulates longing for someone even when the memory of them makes you sick, “I hate you for what you did/ and I miss you like a little kid/ I faked it every time but that’s all right/ I can hardly feel anything/ I hardly feel anything at all.” Heartbreak is not always crying in your bathroom. Sometimes you need to be mad. Sometimes you need to be mean.
Bridger’s ability to convey emotions through the instrumentation and production accentuates the relatability of her lyrics. Something about the mix of her soft and oftentimes monotone vocals with her morbid lyrics feels perfect. She is not trying to hide her sadness, nor is she trying to glorify it. In “Scott Street” she addresses the heartache of past relationships with a delicate combination of bitterness, wit, pain, and longing. She sings “Do you feel ashamed?/ When you hear my name” but ends the song by repeating “anyway don’t be a stranger.”
The sound of the album is what makes it cohesive. Bridgers’ vocals are layered frequently throughout, a nod to one of her favorite artists, Elliott Smith. Delicately plucked and reverb-laden guitar married with aptly placed wisps of theremin tie each song to the next.
The non-deluxe version winds down with a cover of Mark Kozelek’s “You Missed My Heart,” which is beautiful and fits the mood of the album, but somehow feels out of place among the heart-wrenchingly autobiographical songs that make up the rest of the album. It closes out with a thirty-second track titled “Smoke Signals (Reprise),” which make it feel like the last 44 minutes were just a strange dream.
The deluxe edition gives us two new songs, the Tom Petty cover along with a demo version of her most recent single “Motion Sickness,” which trades driving electric guitar for fingerstyle picked acoustic. Her voice is gentler in this rendition. It feels less bitter and more reminiscent. It reminds the listener of Bridgers’ roots in folk and Americana. Her voice taking center-stage with no orchestral swells to cover up the slight timber she takes on in her higher register.
Bridgers avoids the self-indulgent pitfalls of deluxe edition because it falls so heavily in line with the sentiment of the original. The new songs build on the old. Tom Petty joins John Doe, Mark Kozelek, and Conor Oberst on the roster of influences that Bridgers has included in the now 13 track album. “Stranger In The Alps” is less of a stranger and more of an unlikely reunion of great American songwriters with a formidable addition: Phoebe Bridgers.