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PHOEBE BRIDGERS LOOKS AT LIFE FROM BOTH SIDES NOW


When Phoebe Bridgers learned that her second album, Punisher (Dead Oceans), had risen to the top of Billboard’s emerging-artists chart (yep, there’s a chart for that), the 25-year-old singer/songwriter retweeted a quip she’d posted back in January 2019: “I swear to god I’ve been an emerging artist for like 5 years.” Make that 6 ½. Bridgers is as funny on Twitter (where she’s traitor joe) and Instagram (where she’s _fake_nudes_) as she’s heart-wrenching on record.

Indeed, it appears that her barbed, bullshit-detecting sense of humor and her F-bomb-laden conversation form an exoskeleton (could the Halloween skeleton suit she wears on the album cover be a metaphor?) that protects the acute sensitivity so profoundly evident in her richly detailed, emotionally bruised, beguilingly beautiful songs—because it’s safe to say no artist of her generation feels more deeply. Bridgers seemed to confirm the symmetry of these polarities recently in another retweet, this one from London-based Arlo Parks, who’d said of her fellow artist, “Her surrealism, her dark humor, her gift for making the hyper-specific universal is something I think about most days. Thanks for being a star.”

Discussing her namesake, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, in Pitchfork, Bridgers tied these divergent strands together. “She strikes a fucking chord in me,” she said of the Fleabag creator/star. “I read an interview with her where she was like, ‘Every time I’m like, “Should I tell the truth?” the answer is yes.’ The best writing is just telling the truth. I feel the same way about Twitter as I do about songs—the only interesting thing you have to share is your own experience.”

What, then, do we make of the outro to her existential travelogue “Kyoto,” in which she mock-confesses, “Guess I lied/I’m a liar/Who lies/’Cause I’m a liar”? Whatever, Phoebe.

To those who’ve dived deep into her music, Bridgers is as bright a star as you’ll find in L.A.’s musical community. The Pasadena native shows her roots in Punisher opener “Garden Song,” with the lines “They’re gluing roses on a flatbed/You should see it, I mean thousands,” and “See our reflection in the water/Off a bridge at the Huntington/I hopped the fence when I was seventeen/Then I knew what I wanted.”

This sort of cinematic observational imagery—delivered by a crystalline alto that conveys vulnerability and attitude at the same time—is strikingly reminiscent of L.A. poet laureate Joni Mitchell’s vivid word pictures of her adopted city (e.g., “The Hissing of Summer Lawns”), as Bridgers slides naturally into the role of perpetuating the halcyon days of SoCal singer/songwriters, when natives and transplants like Joni, Randy Newman, Harry Nilsson, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon, Bill Withers, Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones, along with such band-associated writer/musicians as Neil Young, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Lowell George, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, were all at their peaks of eloquence and tunefulness.

The line of succession goes through Elliott Smith, Bridgers’ primary inspiration, and the gifted but troubled Ryan Adams, her champion turned harasser, to contemporary chroniclers of the human condition under the palms like DawesTaylor Goldsmith (34), Blake Mills (33), Danielle Haim (31), Bridgers, who was born in 1994, and Billie Eilish, born in 2001. All members of the current crop are L.A. natives.

Punisher makes it unequivocally clear that Bridgers is up to the task not just of carrying on this rich legacy but bringing something striking and unprecedented to it. Each of its 10 songs has lines that will stop you in your tracks. In the title song, a self-described tribute to Elliott Smith, after imagining meeting him (he died when she was seven) and what he would think of her now: “I swear I’m not angry, that’s just my face/A copycat killer with a chemical cut/Either I’m careless or I wanna get caught.” “Savior Complex,” which resolves into the sort of Beatlesque melodic twists Smith regularly employed, turns on a candid après-sex conversation: “I’m too tired/To have a pissing contest,” she sings, sleepy but confrontational, “All the bad dreams that you hide/Show me yours, I’ll show you mine.”

The stunner “Halloween” (which, she told Pitchfork, is “kind of about holding on to a relationship that’s probably dead just to save the holidays”) begins, “I hate living by the hospital/The sirens go all night/I used to joke that if they woke you up/Somebody better be dying.” In “ICU” (aka “I See You”), one of two uptempo songs on the LP, she muses, “If you’re a work of art, I’m standing too close/I can see the brush strokes.” And the devastating “Moon Song” contains the lines few album reviewers have been able to resist quoting: “We hate ‘Tears in Heaven’/But it’s sad that his baby died/And we fought about John Lennon/Until I cried/And then went to bed upset.” There’s more where that came from—much more.

The settings serve the songs subtly but powerfully. Veteran producer Tony Berg (Aimee Mann, Michael Penn, Bruce Hornsby) and 31-year-old polymath Ethan Gruska (formerly half of sibling duo Belle Brigade), who’d helmed Bridgers’ acclaimed 2017 debut LP, Stranger in the Alps, produced with Bridgers. Like its predecessor, the new album was cut at storied Sound City Studios, which Berg and Blake Mills have occupied since 2018, restoring this unlikely mecca, located in an industrial park on the funky northern edge of Van Nuys, to its former glory.

The list of participants in the sessions is a testament to the regard in which Bridgers is held by her fellow musicians. “Halloween,” for example, features Mills, Gruska, legendary drummer Jim Keltner, renowned bassist Sebastian Steinberg, Bright EyesConor Oberst, who formed Better Oblivion Community Center with her in 2019, and co-writer/guitarist Christian Lee Hutson, whose recently released album Beginners was produced by Bridgers. Her boygenius bandmates Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus sing on the quietly devastating album highlight “Graceland Too,” whose lyric begs to be the basis of a film. Also playing key roles were drummer Marshall Vore, her ex-boyfriend, who co-wrote “ICU,” which allusively recounts their breakup; innovative string arranger Rob Moose; and fellow writer/artist Sara Watkins, who supplies the poignant violin running through “Graceland Too.”

As all of the above talented musicians know, Phoebe Bridgers isn’t just the real deal, she’s the old-school/new-model rock star we need right now. 

Photos from Bridgers' Instagram and Twitter accounts

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