Phoebe Bridgers review – a truth-telling phenomenon

<span>Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

Five years ago, the festival industry, prone to hand-wringing about where younger headline acts might spring from, pledged to redress the gender imbalance across their lineups. Strides have been made, notably at Latitude and Glastonbury, with a handful of smaller festivals either achieving parity or narrowing the gap substantially. A recent survey, however, found that in the UK this summer, a paltry 13% of festival headliners were female, which is just one of the many things in the world right now that makes you want to head-butt a bass bin in impotent fury.

It’s not like an indie rock phenomenon hasn’t been snowballing right under festival bookers’ noses. This summer, she has already wowed crowds at Glastonbury and Latitude. But waiting for her closeup is Phoebe Bridgers, a four-time Grammy-nominated artist who has just swiftly sold out four nights at Brixton’s generously proportioned Academy (that’s in the region of 19,600 tickets) as part of an extended European tour that included opening for the Rolling Stones in Hyde Park. Her merch queue clogs up the entire foyer, upstairs and down. Her singing – winsome, numinous, but tough at the same time – is often drowned out by the word-perfect crowd.

After making waves with her debut, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, Bridgers’s second outing, Punisher, hit hard on release in long-ago 2020. It has only kept growing in significance, appearing on virtually every albums of the year list in 2020 and winning the LA native celebrity endorsers. Elton John said he’d “hit someone” if she didn’t win a Grammy; Taylor Swift has been effusive in her praise of Bridgers – and collaborated with her.

She dedicates a song to the dads in the audience – a fan subset whose number is greater than you might have expected

Bridgers’s very newest song, Sidelines, is a subtle slow-burner about the anaesthetic of depression wearing off in the face of love. It came lashed to the soundtrack for the TV serialisation of Conversations With Friends, based on the Sally Rooney novel. Stepping out with the star of Normal People, Paul Mescal, only adds to the quality-zeitgeist swirl around her.

Pretty much every Bridgers gig since Roe v Wade was overturned has found the singer talking about her own experience of abortion, furious at the impact on marginalised women who can’t afford to circumvent restrictions in their home states. Tonight is no exception. The “voice of a generation” tag is one that is probably thrown about too liberally, but in an era in which female anomie and solo female singer-songwriters are forces in the ascendant, Bridgers very much has her foot on the monitor of the well-turned melodic confessional.

“I’m actually pretty positive,” she quips, making it clear that fetishising mental ill-health is not her intention in the introduction to Funeral, a song that nailed on Bridgers’s “sad girl” maven status. (“Jesus Christ,” it goes, “I’m so blue all the time.”)

She grabs an adoring audience by the lapels from the off tonight with Motion Sickness, an old song about her power-imbalanced relationship with alt country singer Ryan Adams, 20 years her senior, who provided an “in” to the industry, but at a price. Shortly after comes a crowd-pleaser off Punisher: Kyoto is a breezy tune in which Bridgers, on tour in Japan, ponders her vexed relationship with her unimpressive father. She dedicates the song to the dads in the audience – a fan subset whose number is greater than you might have expected.

Phoebe Bridgers performs at the Brixton Academy, London. 26/7/22
Phoebe Bridgers performs at the Brixton Academy, London. 26/7/22

For all the generational sadness that fuels her songs, there’s a lot going on in Bridgers’s body of work that leaps demographics. With a wink, her tour is called the Reunion tour, a reference to old bands getting back together. She often hitches her melodies to churning guitars that locate her firmly in the indie rock continuum; the excellent trumpet work by JJ Kirkpatrick adds a stately lushness tonight, fleshing out her sound. Bridgers’s grasp of the wider rock canon percolates away in the background. Her songs are very contemporary, but many old dudes are here in cameo. On the lovelorn Moon Song, her characters agree about Eric Clapton and argue over John Lennon. On Smoke Signals, she references the Smiths’ How Soon Is Now?, the death of David Bowie and Thom Yorke (indirectly).

But Bridgers’s devotion to this male pantheon is not total or blind. When she theatrically smashed a guitar on Saturday Night Live in 2021 and David Crosby sniffed his disapproval, she was quick to call him a “little bitch” on Twitter, where she has long been a witty and sincere presence.

Related: Phoebe Bridgers on Taylor Swift, her boyfriend Paul Mescal and speaking out on Roe v Wade: ‘I want to show everybody what I believe in’

Bridgers’s devotion to Elliott Smith, the cult singer-songwriter who took his own life in 2003, does provide a bass-note thrum throughout. She multitracks her vocals, like Smith did. On Punisher’s title track, she imagines how she would have stalked Smith, becoming one of those over-ardent superfans that artists have to politely placate or risk being labelled jerks. None of this detracts from the originality and immediacy of Bridgers’s warm, keyboard-enhanced sound tonight. The band are dressed as skeletons (a goofy, spooky Bridgers signature), while Bridgers herself is in a cream suit whose waistcoat features a tasselled design of ribs. The songs’ sadness is very much offset by the cleverness of the pop-up-book stage set. During the cathartic finale – I Know the End – Bridgers is joined by her support act, Sloppy Jane, and the 1975’s Matt Healy, screaming as the backdrop visuals burn up.

Bridgers did headline a small London festival, Mirrors, in 2018. She is due to headline a small festival in Iowa next month. But there are bigger, more parched fields crying out for her incisive singalongs and clear-eyed truth-telling.