Some of the things that Phoebe Bridgers does seem like a joke. After all, the night of her Sydney show, she took to the stage to the sound of Disturbed’s ‘Down With The Sickness’, the “oo-ah-ah- ah” marking the beginning of a mostly acoustic set full of songs about heartbreak and resilience. And over in the corner, in the merch booth, one of the shirts for sale was mocked up to look like that of a metal band, Bridgers’ name written in cracked, warping font, the back of the shirt promoting dates in venues like a 7/11 and a Dunkin’ Donuts.
But, though her songs might be marked by a distinctly dark sense of humour, Bridgers is not one of those artists who smothers her music or her message in layers of irony. Because, on one level, yes, it’s funny to pick the world’s most difficult karaoke song as your entrance music, but on another level, Bridgers has more in common with Disturbed than one might initially think. Both are, at the end of the day, unfailingly sincere: musicians that push their music to the very extremes of good taste, hovering always on the boundary of the surreal.
So no, nothing that Bridgers did or said was meant to be taken as anything less than the honest-to-God truth. Not her stage banter, which started slow and quiet, and then slowly ramped up, culminating in the retelling of a disastrous recent performance at which she and her drummer tried and failed to perform a cover of Gillian Welch’s ‘Everything Is Free’ without cracking up. And not her songs, which included a flawless performance of ‘Everything Is Free’ — not a single giggle interrupted it – and songs plucked from her debut album Stranger In The Alps, and her work with the supergroups Boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Centre.
In some ways, the night followed the course that you might expect. ‘Motion Sickness’, a song of profound emotional maturity and intelligence, and the breakout single from Stranger In The Alps was the final song of the main set, because of course it was. And throughout, Bridgers’ voice sounded as assured and as emotional as it does on record, the performed versions of hits like ‘Scott Street’ and ‘Funeral’ bearing a striking resemblance to their recorded counterparts.
But in other ways it proved a distinct surprise. Bridgers’ voice was the same, but songs were transformed, stripped down to their most essential parts. Wielding an acoustic, backed by occasional drums and a gentle guitar accompaniment, Bridgers reshaped songs like ‘Georgia’ and ‘Killer’ into minimalist masterpieces, abandoning the more complicated production and arrangement on the record and letting her music speak for itself, clearly and without distraction.
Particularly extraordinary was what she did to the colossal, multi-part ‘Me And My Dog’ off the debut Boygenius record. In her hands, the song turned into a brittle and beautiful anthem; a showcase for her voice and for the direct, Lorrie Moore-inflected minimalism of her poetry. It was, she said, a song inspired by her own dog, who had died only recently. “So, everyone kiss their dog for me,” she instructed. The crowd murmured in sympathy.
Later, she did the same thing to ‘Chesapeake’, one of the highlights of her Better Oblivion record, written in collaboration with Conor Oberst. That song, which takes a frank and unsentimental look at what happens after people stop turning up to your shows – “My hero plays to no one, in a parking lot,” goes one lyric – provided perhaps the most emotionally raw moment of the night. It was the first time either Bridgers or Oberst had ever played it live, the singer revealed just before she sang the first line, and it cleft the room in two.
The OAF can be a noisy venue, a strangely-shaped grotto better suited for raves and metal bands than a quiet series of songs about the moment everything in your life changes. Bridgers herself called it a “sweaty hole”. But her music silenced even the regular chatter that naturally crops up during bouts of retuning.
The audience, respectful to a fault, stood there silently, some holding one another, some standing alone, and they waited for Bridgers to start playing again. And when she did, they stood perfectly still. And they listened, really listened, to a performer quietly and emphatically telling the truth.
Phoebe Bridgers’ Australian tour continues this week. Head here for remaining dates.