By Sam Fuhrer
While Phoebe Bridgers’s songs are blue contemplations about broken relationships, loneliness and death, they also remind us that sadness and joy can coexist in the same melody, and that hope and despair stem from similar conflicting premises of existence.
“I hate you for what you did. And I miss you like a little kid,” She says in “Motion Sickness,” the opening track of her album, Stranger in the Alps. It’s a song about a tarnished relationship, where she confesses that she “faked it every time,” yet still carries the baggage of not being able to “drown him out.” Her conversational lyrics are relevant to anyone damaged by an ex in young adulthood, and reflects on the confusion of holding resentment and hatred towards someone while simultaneously longing to hold or be held by them.
Phoebe performed to a packed theater at the brand new venue, the Lodge Room, in Highland Park on Saturday night, 12/16. “She sold it out in 3 days,” said the booking agent when I called to ask for extra tickets. There is something uniquely haunting about her appearance and delivery. Her skin is ghostly white and her hair a metallic blonde. She wears all black and seems to always be ready for Halloween. Throughout her set she referenced Sid and Nancy and Johnny Cash in her stage banter, and was joined for two songs by “one of her best friends,” Conor Oberst, who made a surprise appearance, that everyone was sort of expecting.
There is a ghost on the cover of Phoebe’s record, and it feels like she’s singing posthumous songs from past selves. She reveals parts of herself that have died with each failed relationship and delivers poetry that seems both literary and improvisational.
Like Conor, her reflections on loneliness are pertinent to her all white audience, that ranges from teenagers to middle aged men and women. “This song is about sexting”, she says before playing a tragic tune called “Demi Moore,” where she asks her lover to send a dirty picture and tell her what he’d do to her. Why is she seeking salvation in text messages? Why doesn’t she go out and meet a stranger? Is technology an isolating trap, or does it connect us to people we miss that are thousands of miles away? Overwhelming loneliness in the digital age challenges us with the dilemma of being more socially connected via our phones, while being physically alone.
While her songs may reflect depression, there are a lot of amazing things going for her. She has a group of friends that appears to love her, a hilarious brother, who was wearing a Santa costume and came on stage to launch half a dozen bouncy balls into the audience, respect from indie icons like Conor Oberst and Ryan Adams, and a growing cult following of thousands of fans. She’s a female singer with an all male band supporting her, that plays heart wrenching chords and harmonies, emulating Bright Eyes and Elliott Smith. While empowering, it doesn’t seem like a feminist statement, simply just something that is. She’s a good songwriter and that’s why she has a good band, it has nothing to do with whether she is a boy or a girl. She effortlessly held complete control of the room and all 500 people stood silently, crying and holding each other the entire set.
“I have a friend I call// When I’ve bored myself to tears// And we talk until we think we might just kill ourselves// But then we laugh until it disappears,” Phoebe says in her song, “Funeral,” revealing her ability to see the humor in the dark world she lives in. We sometimes romanticize our own sadness, and think we’re the only ones going through it, but with artists like Phoebe, Conor, Mark Kozelek, and David Foster Wallace, who have found ways to articulate the complexity of depression, loneliness doesn’t seem so isolating. Sad music and literature provide the relief of knowing there are other smart and talented people who feel tortured, which is oddly comforting. I guess misery loves company.
“I have this dream where I’m screaming underwater,” Phoebe says, later in the song, “Where my friends are all waving from the shore.” I’m sure the context is different, but I have that same dream…