Album Review: Phoebe Bridgers—’Punisher’
Posted: by The Editor
Fans of a certain sphere of indie rock have without a doubt spent the last few years hearing about Phoebe Bridgers. The Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter’s 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps caught the attention of many, but especially her fellow musicians. Since Stranger, Bridgers has worked with rising talents and industry veterans alike, having formed Boygenius with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus in 2018, and Better Oblivion Community Center with Conor Oberst in early 2019. Her second solo release, Punisher, while similarly emotive, is grander than its predecessor, eschewing the gentle folk she has become known for to embrace more unnerving, electric elements.
The title, Punisher, refers to the name musicians give to fans who linger too long at the merch table, endlessly talking their idol’s ear off. Its title track finds Bridgers’ casting herself in that very role. At first sounding like a maudlin love song, it soon becomes clear it’s ond half of a conversation. Bridgers never got to meet her idol, the musician Elliott Smith, and even she seems to think that’s a good thing. She spends the track walking past Smith’s famed home, Los Feliz’s Snow White Cottages, thinking of questions she’d ask him, and peppering in very Southern California touches like references to Scientology and stucco houses. She makes it very clear she sees herself as that eager fan from Smith’s hypothetical point of view; she hears “so many stories of you at the bar / most times alone and some looking your worst / but never not sweet to the trust funds and punishers”. However, she regrets not being able to think that highly of herself: “I wish that I could say the same / I swear I’m not angry, that’s just my face.” Bridgers’ love of Smith’s music is apparent through much of the record, as well as her past work. She makes a version of his deeply human, introspective indie-folk, and is able to capture feelings that are both universal and hyperspecific, with a candid delivery.
That said, much of Bridgers’ appeal lies in how much she seems to have carved her own path within a genre that so often recycles itself. Her lyrics are sad, sobering, and yet often elicit a smirk. The opening lines of “Halloween”, for instance, are morose yet wry: “I hate living by the hospital / the sirens go all night / I used to joke that if they woke you up / somebody’d better be dying”. That song unravels into a metaphor for how we mask our true intentions in a relationship, breaking down to the chorus of “baby, it’s Halloween / we can be anything.” While much of the record feels like a crossover, with so many of Bridgers’ collaborators acting as part of an extended universe, this song is perhaps the only moment where that feels unnecessary. The final moments feature harmonies from Oberst, which by that point feel extraneous and are so fleeting you wonder what purpose they were meant to serve.
In a profile with Rolling Stone, Bridgers said the record’s key themes were “crying” and “feeling numb.” On the stunning “Chinese Satellite,” she sings about using music as a coping mechanism, and her description feels relatable to anyone who’s sobbed along to Bridgers’ music. “Drowning out the morning birds / with the same three songs over and over / I wish I wrote it, but I didn’t / so I learned the words”. This is the kind of escapism that many of us use sad songs for, and here it is being spelled out directly. Bridgers sounds on the verge of tears as she desperately finds any way she can think of to be reunited with a lost love. It’s a restless track that builds from a trembling whimper to a powerful cry.
The glowing third single “I See You” kicks into high gear, dark and gilded with pizzicato strings, mellotron, and rolling drums as Bridgers’ sings about a failed relationship with an ex who had become integral to her life. She marvels at how “I used to light you up / now I can’t even get you to play the drums.” Even a cursory google unveils that the song’s subject has his name in the liner notes, and plays drums on every track – including this one. Working with an ex so closely on a song written with them and about them feels deliciously Rumours-esque, and adds a layer to an already moving song.
While much of Bridgers’ work feels ripe with deep introspection and pain from her real-life relationships, there are delightful moments where she explores the pain and evil felt by other people—real or not. Much like when she covered Mark Kozelek’s saga of a song “You Missed My Heart” on Stranger, she spins a foreboding yarn on “Garden Song.” It unfurls as if Shirley Jackson had written a love story, with Bridgers singing from the perspective of a woman who murders the evil man living next door to her lover. While never saying it explicitly, it becomes clear that she has buried him beneath her new rose garden. Their love has grown, and their garden is prospering. No one needs to know of the act that lies below. It also feels like a new direction for Bridgers as her voice sits carefully atop a dark, pulsating synth and a wobbly guitar line like a raft on a powerful river.
And then there is the closer, the powerful force that is “I Know The End.” Starting out as a quivering acoustic number, Bridgers touches on feeling small in the vast expanse of the world, and coming to the terms that everything, whether friendships or times in our lives end. This is all before the song passes the two-minute mark. Then, in many ways, all hell breaks loose. Though much of Punisher finds Bridgers singing with her head tilted down, carefully articulating her feelings, the album’s final few minutes act as a striking contrast. You can see some of the lyrics here in your mind, “windows down, scream along / to some America first rap country song” feels particularly eerie for those who’ve spent time in the less progressive places in the country.
Bridgers sings of conspiracy, “Over the coast, everyone’s convinced / It’s a government drone or alien spaceship” and of isolating herself forever “A haunted house with a picket fence / To float around and ghost my friends.” But none of this has any power to stop the coming end of the world; as the album comes to a close, we’re treated to delightful, horrifying chaos, as each member of the band eventually stops playing in time. Bridgers unleashes all the pain she can’t articulate into clever words into blood-curdling screams. The final things we hear are the visceral sounds of one trying to calm down after crying.
Punisher feels like our first true taste of who Bridgers is as an artist. Her debut record was her finding her footing, but now we’re seeing her inner darkness come through. Full of hopelessness, awareness of her own flaws, and fear of the unknown, it feels at times like we’ve stumbled upon something we aren’t supposed to know. She’s invited us into her mind, and her personal life. Not for our sake, but for her own.
Eric Bennett | @seethingcoast
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