Phoebe Bridgers seems to have been quite the indie-darling of the last couple of years. One that inexplicably has passed me by to date, so far as listening goes. I’ve been drawn to her now though as her name appeared on the line ups for near every single festival in 2020 – all of which have of course been cancelled.
This is clearly an album for mellow moments when you need some comfort. Like a blanket and hot chocolate on a cold winter night or a whisky in the chill after a hot summers day. The production here is thick and syrupy and if you let it take over your ears and mind, it treats you well. On the first and second listens I wasn’t too sure and nearly didn’t pick it for coverage. I’m glad I stuck with it though as with each listen it reveals more and becomes all the more enrapturing.
The album opens with the short instrumental track DVD Menu, ominous and foreboding with the sighing lead violin over distorted lower register plucks. Garden Song tunes in off the end with a layered instrumental of plucked guitars with production clips casting an intriguing counterpoint to Bridgers smooth vocals riding on top. The combination gives off very Bon Iver vibes. The deep male voice harmonising with her higher register creates an odd juxtaposition through the vast difference in keys but not one that detracts.
Kyoto is destined for the upper echelon of year-end lists. It reveals more of itself to me with each listen. It is big and euphoric – a contrast to most of the other tracks here – and those trumpets sail around give of indie-folk vibes of the type Mumford and Sons achieved at their peak but could only wish of effectively deploying so effectively now. These upbeat musical elements run throughout the record to indicate moments or thoughts of freedom from the emotional turmoil of desiring a taken or inaccessible partner as we will see.
Title track Punisher has Bridgers sounding her most wounded as she sees the person she desires and wants to introduce herself but can’t bring herself to do it. The gently arpeggiating piano accented by strings and maybe a low register harp? A soft and enveloping track that seems to submerge and engulf you.
Halloween takes us to a party where she gets to know her desire by hiding behind masks but revealing through alcohol – “Be whatever you want / I’ll be whatever you want”. The eerie production pairs with alternating acoustic guitars – one in each ear – playing dampened picking patterns. Once Bridgers hits the chorus, the bass-y synth back line mentioned rises to meet them to thicken out the sound and pull you further into its depths. The sheer number of layers and aspects used here could be interpreted as too much going on and needlessly busy but each one is used so carefully and subtly, they just add to that sense of enclosure and immersion.
Indie-folk and rock notes return for Chinese Satellite, feeling suitably epic and expansive. It bends the previously established atmosphere but cuts through with clean rousing strings, clean (ish) electric guitars and large sounding percussion to create a sense of wonder and ambitious dreaming as if you’re taking off. This is reflected in the lyrics as Bridger dreams of being released from the emotional turmoil she is suffering. The sense of freedom means similarities with Kyoto but the noise is all-encompassing here with only her voice shining clean through, where Kyoto has the trumpets and clean drumming to join her.
Moon Song returns you to the more mournful themes of the record and deals with the trial of being the third wheel or Mistress:
You pushed me in
and now my feet can’t touch the bottom of you
You couldn’t have, you couldn’t have
Stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody
Who loves you more
So I will wait for the next time you want me
Like a dog with a bird at your door
It is the darkest, lowest point of the record sonically to reflect the circumstances she finds herself in. The following track, Saviour Complex. Musically it is faultlessly pretty as the dual duelling acoustic guitars flutter about alongside the lead violin and Phoebe’s vocals; they sound like butterflies or birds swooping about her as she walks through a flowery garden. Lyrically, however, she is dealing with being used in her forbidden relationship and continuing to helplessly endure all the crap that comes from it due to her love for them.
Did Arcade Fire have a hand in ICU? It sure sounds like their kind of production, particularly tracks from Funeral with its staccato drums and strings creating a relentless rhythm that goes on to interact with the rest of the aesthetic laid out here. The chorus sounds particularly shiny and sparkly between the density of the verses. This is the sense of optimism and freedom playing out musically to reflect the lyrics yet again as she opines on being the outsider and not knowing what she wants but still loving them.
Graceland Too takes a distinctly country turn back to the indie-folk tones that have peeked occasionally so far. The thick production takes a break as the full folk force takes centre stage on this tender, sunny porch-dweller of a track. to be clear, there is nothing redneck or hillbilly here, just very pretty and comforting banjo and violin playing off one another. It also seems to take the viewpoint of the person she has been singing about so far with their observation of her flightiness and indecision.
Album closer I Know The End starts in a place of groundhog day, yet another night of romantic denial and indecision as to what to do, sounding musically similar to other tracks that are down in the depths of the emotional turmoil like Moon Song and Saviour Complex. However, there is an acknowledgement that she has to accept the circumstance and move on which leads to the transformation of the song at the halfway mark to fully commit to the senses of freedom and escape previously seen on Kyoto and Chinese Satellite. Unlike the narrative on those tracks, here she commits fully to leaving and moving on and even when she does look back there is nothing there to return to – the only way is forward.
Musically it builds to a spectacular pay-off combining all that has come before into an explosive denouement where the bright and free elements of the record match the depths of the lower moments. It builds and layers up with more and more elements to the final point of unhinging int he final section with screamed vocals, out of control additional trumpets and flailing drums until it drops out and Bridgers breaths her last desperation and is finally freed. It is a euphoric and gloriously triumphant track that sets you free from its grip as safely as it took you in much the same way as the protagonist is shedding their own chains.
My earlier alluded uncertainty with this album continues to dissolve with each listen. It is definitely built for a particular mood to listen to it in full – when you need a bit of calm time out especially if you’re feeling down. My set of go-to records in that category are questionable and don’t scratch the itch to be made to feel better. The sense of optimism and freedom (of the trumpets, and higher strings) that battles through the complexity and density of the thick, dark and immersive backline serves to infect the listener with their own optimism. Once you’re familiar with it, it is a sonic hug for your low moments or a beautiful background for quiet reflection.
The thick and immersive backline production on the record creates a dark atmosphere. I am never sure how much cover art is designed to look like the music and from there how much it influences the listener’s interpretation but the dark blue and red faded split of the cover art with Phoebe in her skeleton onesie is the perfect pictorial representation of both the sonic design and lyrical themes of the record.
Yet another female artist with top class production producing captivating music and atmosphere? It seems for all the things that are going on, 2020 is a veritable treasure trove of these at least and I’m all here for it.