Phoebe Bridgers has a remarkable ability to invest seemingly banal scenes with profound emotion. On this year’s Punisher, she showed she could make a bored visit to an overseas 7/11 or an argument at a Whole Foods feel as deep and meaningful as the funeral on her first album. In moments like those, she lets the everyday settings heighten the feelings in her words by contrast, using that sense of familiarity to surprise you with how much you care about what she’s singing.
It turns out she can do the same thing with an overplayed song. Her new cover of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris,” which began as an Election Day joke on Twitter, has now become a most excellent coda to her year of sad indie-folk triumphs. Back in the late Nineties, when Bridgers’ hero Elliott Smith was creating a new canon of miserable, pretty songs, “Iris” stood at the far opposite end of the singer-songwriter spectrum — a polished hunk of radio-rock schlock, drenched in anonymous orchestral flourishes and saddled with a ridiculously corny video based on the Nicolas Cage movie City of Angels. If you were of listening age in that era, you heard “Iris” many, many, many times on commercial radio and VH1. It’s not a bad song, exactly, just one that’s had all the individuality drained out of it by overexposure. The idea of hearing “Iris” in 2020 and feeling anything sounds like a setup for a punchline.
Give it up for Bridgers, who has once again scribbled all over the line separating sincerity and irony, crumpled the piece of paper containing that line into a compact ball, and dunked it above our heads. Her version of “Iris,” which also features vocals from Maggie Rogers, is hushed and lovely. She sings it slowly, with minimal acoustic accompaniment, so you can hear the heartbreaking realness in each word: “I’d give up forever to touch you/’Cause I know that you feel me somehow/You’re the closest to heaven that I’ll ever be/And I don’t wanna go home right now.” Those opening lines have been gooey cliches for more than 20 years, but when you hear Phoebe Bridgers sing them, the weirdest thing happens: They become Phoebe Bridgers lyrics. By the end of the song, you’ll start wondering if there’s been some kind of Mandela Effect alternate universe event in which “Iris” was always a B-side from Stranger in the Alps, and the 1998 Goo Goo Dolls version was the cover all along. You might also find yourself imagining a Phoebe Bridgers cover of Matchbox 20’s “3 a.m.,” Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper,” or another alt-rock hit of that vintage, and weeping a single tear of joy.
Bridgers and Rogers’ “Iris” is available on Bandcamp for 24 hours as a pay-what-you-want purchase, with all proceeds going to Fair Fight, the crucial election-reform organization led by Stacey Abrams. If you head there now and drop a few bucks, you can know that you’re helping do your part for Georgia’s upcoming Senate runoffs while you sort through your complicated feelings about how maddeningly good this song is.