Music’s capacity to prompt a response deep within you, involuntary and initiated by little more than a particular sequence of notes or well chosen chords, remains one of life’s most addictive elements. Something about the first twenty seconds of ‘Smoke Signals’, which opens this glorious album, has the capacity to send up the flare for imminent tears. I’m not saying it makes me cry every time I put it on, but that little flicker that something has just shifted inside you is dependably there with each play. It’s quite a skill but also quite an imperceptible thing to define. That whole track is quite special, atmospheric, intense and featuring the lyric: “We’ll watch TV while the lights on the street / Put all the stars to death / It’s been on my mind since Bowie died / Just checking out to hide from life.” It works for me and the rest of the record doesn’t disappoint.
The break-up narrative of ‘Motion Sickness’ is brilliantly deployed, “You said when you met me you were bored / And you were in a band when I was born,” while the aching failure to reevaluate after the loss in ‘Funeral’ is presented unpolished for our attention. The moment during the final third of ‘Scott Street’, already no slouch, when an additional, higher pitched backing vocal enters and something like a bike bell is rung is deliriously beautiful. I quite sincerely get a little excited in anticipation of its arrival during every listen. The alchemical touch to which I alluded earlier plays its part at several points on ‘Stranger In The Alps’, finessing some already captivating songwriting.
‘Chelsea’ has a dextrously delayed drumbeat while ‘Georgia’ offers a more conventional sound, representing some of Bridgers’ earliest writing and likely to appeal immediately to fans of First Aid Kit. Both feature the typically magnificent vocal performances that are so consistently across this whole album. ‘Would You Rather’ features Conor Oberst doing what Conor Oberst does atop an ornate arrangement that pursues different textures to its near neighbours. The album concludes with a glorious reading of ‘You Missed My Heart’, one of the few Mark Kozelek tracks I haven’t been able to let go of since purging his increasingly frustrating and wilfully unpleasant presence from my record collection. The highlight of his 2013 collaboration with Jimmy LaValle, it appears here without its bleepy, electronic distance, instead marshalled by warm piano and delicate ambient textures. It’s the superior version of this captivating track, but clearly not written in or for her voice, which actually seems a shame after the pulsating honesty of tracks like ‘Funeral’ and ‘Smoke Signals’. Much of the early press for this album talked about artists who are backing her, but Bridgers has done more than enough on this debut to stand alone without need for reinforcements, be they in press releases, performance or even songwriting. It’s genuinely exciting to think where she might go next.