Review | Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
Not content with releasing one of the best albums of 2017, indie-folk singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers returns with one of the best of 2020.
Twenty-five-year-old Californian singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers has been on the scene for a few years now. Since her first full-length release Stranger in the Alps in 2017, Bridgers has gone on to collaborate with various indie music legends from Conor Oberst (with whom she released a full album as Better Oblivion Community Center in 2019) to The National's Matt Berninger. In addition to this, Bridgers makes up one-third of the band Boygenius, alongside fellow rising stars Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus.
Bridgers' work, whether solo or collaborative, has always displayed a distinct and fully-formed identity. Although there is no shortage of breathy-voiced indie-folk singer-songwriters on the scene, Bridgers' music has a unique and accomplished sense of introspective emotion combined with a dash of dry humour and self-awareness that steers it clear of mawkish sentimentality. It is no wonder that Bridgers has been chosen as a collaborator by so many established names!
Stranger in the Alps established Bridgers' sparse, folk-inspired sound and strong songwriting - sombre cuts like "Funeral" and "Smoke Signals" were balanced with the direct pop melodies of "Motion Sickness", an unconventional diss track (aimed at disgraced musician Ryan Adams) and unlikely empowerment anthem. "Motion Sickness" was lauded not just for its musicianship but for its portrayal of both trauma and emotional resilience - a delicate balance that has come to define the music of Phoebe Bridgers.
This balance is replicated on new album Punisher, although here the lyricism is often a little more abstract. Like its predecessor, memories are dug up and reflected on frequently and in precise detail, yet Punisher references space as much as it does time. In addition to lyrics about stars, planets, and satellites, location and distance are explored in depth. Single "Kyoto" details feelings of dislocation and dissociation associated with touring unfamiliar cities, yet its simple, nursery-rhyme-esque melody and triumphant horn sections display a bold confidence in this discomfort. Perhaps the most immediately catchy and accessible song of Bridgers' career so far, the chorus of "I'm gonna kill you if you don't beat me to it" sounds a lot more joyous than its lyrics suggest.
The instrumentation on this album is more diverse and the arrangements and production more inventive than on Stranger in the Alps, and this is notable from the opening track, the eerie instrumental "DVD Menu". Subtle electronic flourishes provide a textural backdrop to single "Garden Song", which otherwise replicates the previous album's downbeat folk sound. Here Bridgers seems trapped somewhere between the past ("I hopped the fence when I was seventeen") and the future ("when I grow up, I'm gonna look up from my phone and see my life"), between youth and adulthood, between one state and another. This sense of being in suspended animation is palpable across most of the album, and especially relatable during the current pandemic, where life seems almost to be on pause.
The delicate, Elliott Smith-inspired title track continues this slow, spare sound (in contrast with its opening line, "when the speed kicks in, I go to the store for nothing"), as does "Halloween", where fingerpicked guitars provide a backdrop to wry observations - "I hate living by the hospital / the sirens go all night / I used to joke that if they woke you up somebody better be dying". Conor Oberst appears at the end to provide backing vocals, as he did on earlier track "Would You Rather", which is fitting as "Halloween"'s lyric "you've been drinking and you're wearing a mask" is likely a nod to Oberst's classic "Lua".
Like Oberst, Bridgers is a master at depicting - lyrically and musically - snapshots of relationships that are flawed and fragile, yet offer some kind of refuge. "Moon Song" is classic Bridgers, with her admitting that she would return to a former lover "like a dog with a bird at your door". The stunning lullaby-esque waltz of "Savior Complex" evokes a similar feeling of surrender in its gorgeous melody and instrumentation, with weeping violins interlude that ache with feeling - making this one of Bridgers' best songs to date.
"Chinese Satellite" evokes The X-Files with the lyric “I want to believe / Instead I look at the sky and I feel nothing”. The arrangement on this track is full-bodied and the production sleek, and the chiming, chorus-drenched guitars sound straight from recent collaborators and tourmates The 1975 - yet Bridgers is a more accomplished songwriter than Matt Healy, and her experimentations more successful. Single "I See You" delivers another accessible, upbeat melody, with some of her best lyrics yet:
I hate it when she opens her mouth
It's amazing to me how much you can say
When you don't know what you're talking about
The final stretch from the pure country twang and lyrical devotion of "Graceland Too" to the apocalyptic folk-rock of closer "I Know the End" raises this album to a new level. The latter track is the closest Bridgers has ever come to prog-rock, with multiple sections that increase in lyrical and instrumental intensity, moving from straightforward folk to a dramatic, chaotic crescendo of blasting horns and crashing drums that sounds like the sky is falling in. The dreamlike dislocation of the first section calls back to "Moon Song" - "and when I call, you come home / a bird in teeth" - before the quiet vocal desperation of "I know, I know, I know" gives way to a rising sense of urgency that moves from triumphant declarations of "the end is near" to its terrifying arrival. The sound of Bridgers literally gasping for air as if adrift in space is as visceral a vocal performance as any that she has displayed, and is a striking and brave end to the album.
Phoebe Bridgers' smart songwriting and exquisite vocal and instrumental abilities produced one of the best albums of 2017, and have now given us one of the best of 2020. Punisher is a fantastic collection of songs that expertly defines the feeling of being caught somewhere between youth and adulthood, of fearing an impending future while still trying to make sense of a fading past. As someone born mere months after Bridgers, it strikes a loud chord. To steal a lyric from “Chinese Satellite” - I wish I wrote it, but I didn’t.
Best songs: Chinese Satellite, I See You, Saviour Complex, I Know the End