By Jackson Tarricone
Getting through any Phoebe Bridgers project is simultaneously an immense chore and a total breeze. Her music is always so vivid, melodic, and full of color. The sound pallets and production choices never fail to captivate, not to mention her voice to which Conor Oberst attributed a deep yet vague familiarity akin to that of a close friend of a somewhat forgotten past. On the other hand, the lyrics and the majority of the songs themselves are unencumbered, raw emotion in audio format. Despite the few moments of reprieve, mustering the strength to keep walking let alone listening seems impossible at times. This is not down to the music being bereft of hope, but rather replete with feeling. Phoebe Bridgers’ second album as a solo artist both draws and builds on her previous work. Punisher is one of the most bewitching, beautiful, and certainly one of the best albums of the year.
The album opens with “DVD Menu,” a desolate, somewhat apocalyptic sounding landscape that sets the stage for the rest of the album. It very much sounds like how the album’s cover appears. Then we are fully thrust into the album with “Garden Song,” the lead single from the album. The chord progression of the verse is identical to the first song on Stranger in the Alps, “Smoke Signals.” The resemblance comes to a skittering halt at the chorus, which features a tantalizing baritone from Phoebe Bridgers’ tour manager—although he could certainly pass for Matt Berninger of The National— along with her own amazing voice.
Briders’ dark, tongue-in-cheek humor is in full flow on this track: her declaration that she is “not afraid of hard work” followed by her nearly sighing “I have everything I wanted” might get an exhale or two in between the many surrounding sobs. The glitchy guitars and driving kick make this equal parts downtrodden and infectious. Her humor pervades throughout the record, but especially on “Kyoto,” the album’s punchiest track which is full of one liners about everything from the oddity of payphones in 2020 to chemtrails. To that end, “I See You” sees Bridgers going on a deeply introspective monologue to herself (“thinking out loud”) all while laying down on the lawn, locked out of the house.
While this album is not a departure from Bridgers’ distinct sound, there is a great deal of experimentation on this record. “Savior Complex” features an almost “She’s Leaving Home” esque melody and string arrangement. The eponymous “Punisher” employs a Bon Iver reminiscent vocoder during the verse, which makes every line cut even more deep. This song, which is allegedly written about the late great Elliott Smith, is one of the many highlights of this album, especially its drop-dead gorgeous chorus: “What if I told you I feel like I know you but we never met? It’s for the best.” This might be a reference to an idea expressed on “Waltz No. 2” one of Smith’s most popular songs: “I’m never gonna know you now, but I’m gonna love you anyhow.” If it is, it is a fantastic tribute to one of the greatest songwriters ever who passed on way too soon.
“Chinese Satellite” sees Bridgers venturing into a slightly Lorde-esque melody and aesthetic. Maybe it is just the line about the “evangelicals,” a group addressed in the song “I’ll Still Destroy You,” but the dense rhythms of the chorus and the overall dynamics of the song would not sound out of place on a National record, specifically Sleep Well Beast. This is one of the most prevalent differences between Punisher and Stranger in the Alps. Punisher has a certain heaviness to it that is absent on Bridgers’ debut, hauntingly beautiful as it is. The production also feels more immediate with the guitars and Bridgers’ voice coming through with crispness and clarity.
There are hints of influence from Bridgers’ other projects on her solo work throughout the album in the added muscle of tracks like “I Know the End,” which can be traced back to her amazing collaboration with Conor Oberst—who sings on “Halloween”—as Better Oblivion Community Center. The strumming pattern on “Savior Complex,” along with some of Bridgers’ vocal inflections during the chorus of “Punisher,” appear to take inspiration from Bridgers’ friend and collaborator Christian Lee Hutson, whose fantastic debut album Beginners was produced by Bridgers. “Graceland Too” and “I Know the End” feature an unofficial Boygenius reunion, making for a cathartic, strong finale to this behemoth of a record. The only thing more satisfying to the ear than hearing Lucy Dacus harmonize with Phoebe Bridgers is when Julien Baker joins in later in the track. Although Stranger in the Alps dropped a meager three years ago, Bridgers has done a lot of growth between then and now, as illustrated by the immense maturity that shines through on this album.
“I Know The End” is an entire journey all in itself that touches on homesickness, temporality, and eternity. It is absolutely heartbreaking when Bridgers sighs resignedly that “there’s no place like my room,” a sentiment all too familiar to almost everybody. As if that wasn’t enough, Bridgers doesn’t hesitate in delivering the killer blow during the ensuing chorus: “I gotta go, I know, I know, I know,” another truly heartbreaking concession. The lyrics of the verses depict image after image with such great depth, each line containing worlds in themselves; this is truly a finale of cosmic proportions all culminating in a guttural scream from Bridgers followed by Bridgers attempting and failing (in the best way possible) to make crowd noise at the end.
As I’m sitting here writing this at 1 AM, having listened to Punisher five times consecutively since it came out a day early, I’m pondering what exactly makes Bridgers’ music so great. Of course, the music is masterfully crafted, but why does it resonate with so many people? It may not be the definitive answer, but I believe it is because Bridgers’ music is so deeply personal and for that reason it is equally emotive. I challenge anybody reading this to listen to the end of “Graceland Too” and not think of somebody that they care for very deeply even though their relationship is complicated. I challenge you to listen to Phoebe singing about listening to “the same three songs” to “drown out the morning birds” in “Chinese Satellite” and not imagine yourself living through that exact moment. Bridgers’ songs are both so vivid in their specificity to the point that they literally have to be autobiographical and yet so welcoming and disarming that they are universal. Above all else, her music is vulnerable; it is authentic. Punisher might be very difficult to get through, but that is only because it brings our emotions to the surface. Although I am not close enough to see the brush strokes, it is clear that this is an amazing work of art and well worth a listen.
I was not sure whether I was going to publish let alone write a review during the largest civil rights movement in recorded history as the world finally wakes up to all of the injustices faced by people of color. This is not intended in any way to detract from everything else going on right now. While this is a music publication, I still felt compelled to say something. In no way am I speaking on behalf of Villanova University, although they too have issued a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests taking place around the world have been a long time coming, and it seems that Government officials and people in positions of power are heeding our demands for reform to combat the systemic injustices of the Police system and beyond. I encourage those reading this to stay informed, to let your voice be heard, and to do your part.
RIP George Floyd.
RIP Breonna Taylor.
RIP anybody who has lost their life to police brutality and racism.
Black Lives Matter.