We take a look back at why Phoebe Bridgers’ third album ‘Punisher’ was so damn good
Released during a time of worldwide panic and uncertainty, Phoebe Bridgers’ phenomenal second album is the remedy for the turbulent terrors of 2020. Haunting and ethereal in nature, ‘Punisher’ is Bridgers’ most mature song-writing to date.
Master of taking the uncomfortable and foreboding anxieties of life and shaping them into beautifully compelling musical masterpieces, 26-year-old Phoebe Bridgers is perhaps most known for her wistfully wonderful voice and painfully intimate song-writing…that and her appearances in her iconic skeleton costume. Recorded at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles, the album reunited Bridgers with the producers Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, who were also responsible for producing her first album. Having already secured massive success in 2018 with her debut record ‘Stranger In The Alps’, Bridgers leaves behind the alternative country roots of her earlier writing for the reflective, atmospheric wonders of ‘Punisher’. A word of caution: there is truly no other way to listen to this record than on a long car journey into the night.
No other artist takes us on a journey like Bridgers, as she touches lyrically on the realms of the afterlife and the strange happenings of everyday occurrences. From the initial offset, the opening track ‘DVD Menu’ awakens our senses and establishes that this album is not to be taken lightly. Decorated with the lingering echoes of strings against eery flutters of Bridgers’ voice in reverse, this first track acts like the overture to an epic stage production. “Someday I’m gonna live / In your house upon the hill,” sings Bridgers, as the second track on the record ‘Garden Song’ takes us on a walk through the artist’s lifetime, rousing the feeling of nostalgia and reflecting on lost time. The rumbling of an ominous male backing vocal underneath Bridgers’ voice, emphasizes the peculiar and otherworldly ambiance that the record strives to create throughout each song. Originally released as a single en-route to the release of the full album, this emotive dip into the notions of dissociation is the perfect lyrical opener to a work of this exceptional standard.
Sometimes a spark of inspiration can arise at the most random of moments and this was the case for the track ‘ICU’, which according to Bridgers’ was written in a soundcheck before a show. The track captivates the motions of the breakdown of a relationship with the lyrics alluding to the record’s constant theme of houses with the line, “I’m tired of trying to get in the house,” which metaphorically outlines Bridgers’ frustration in navigating through her complex emotions yet again. However, this is what great music and lyricism do – it challenges our beliefs and helps us express things we cannot explain. It is the crescendo of the percussive verses that juxtapose the stillness of the refrain as Bridgers sings, “But I feel something when I see you now,” that makes the song one of the most powerfully resonant songs on the album.
What makes Bridgers’ lyrical content so intriguing is that she finds captivating ways to discuss heavy topics, such as the parallels between the inner and outer body – something that can be quite daunting to fathom. Both songs ‘Kyoto’ and ‘Chinese Satellite’ feature the running theme of exploring the outer self; Chinese Satellite contains the poignant line, “I’ve been running around in circles / Pretending to be myself,” as the song alludes to the fear and frustration of not feeling awake or totally in touch with oneself as well as the sessions of therapy that Bridgers’ has undergone throughout her career. ‘Kyoto’, the third and perhaps most upbeat song on the album, is written like a constant stream of consciousness. What makes the song so brilliantly iconic is the magnificent contrast between melancholy lyrics and a guitar-driven buoyant tempo as Bridgers sings, “I wanted to see the world / Then I flew over the ocean / And I changed my mind,”. The same sardonic and almost ironic tone is a running theme throughout the album as the track ‘Moon Song’ uses it in a similar vein with lyrics that dig into Bridgers hate of Eric Clapton’s music. Throughout ‘Kyoto’, the use of a bold brass line permeating the steady drumbeat and Bridgers’ vocals, presents this track as a cathartic explosion, much like Bridgers’ earlier track ‘Motion Sickness’ carrying the same effect. It is the perfect accompaniment to screaming your lungs out and jumping up and down on your bed.
So where does the album and track name ‘Punisher’ come from? In the context of Bridgers as a touring musician, a ‘punisher’ is the archetype of a fan who is perhaps a little too enthusiastic and keen when it comes to meeting their heroes. In this track, Bridgers positions herself in that fan’s shoes to deliver a heart-wrenching mix of delicate piano melodies and glittering pizzicato violin decorations. A personal favourite, the introspective lyrics such as, “What if I told you I feel like I know you / But we never met?” and “The only real reason I moved to the east side / I love a good place to hide in plain sight,” alongside the intimate closeness of the vocals in the song, are what make it an unmissable number. Similar compliments can be awarded to the song ‘Savior Complex’ which feels just as vulnerable; inspired by the Bright Eyes song ‘Lime Tree’, this song is arguably the most heart-breaking song of Bridgers’ to date. “All the bad dreams that you hide / Show me yours, I’ll show you mine,” sings Bridgers’ amongst a divine mixture of weeping strings and the gentle strums of an acoustic guitar. The song explains the state of being in a difficult and fragile relationship with someone that hates themselves. A ‘savior complex’ often manifests in relationships with damaged people and despite the love and dedication between two people, it can often destroy both in the process. Despite its immense beauty this is, for some, potentially the hardest song to listen to on the record.
During her time as a musician, Bridgers has been known to collaborate with artists like herself on projects such as the band Boygenius with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, and the band Better Oblivion Community Centre with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. Whilst Baker and Dacus offer their musical gifts on the penultimate track ‘Graceland Too’, the voice of Oberst can be heard complimenting Bridgers’ spectacularly haunting vocals on the track ‘Halloween’. The specific sense of a place is depicted in ‘Graceland Too’ as Bridgers uses a mysterious second-person voice in the lyrics describing, “She could do anything she wants to / She could go home, but she’s not going to”. On the contrary to the penultimate track, the song ‘Halloween’ carries through the theme of relationships as Bridgers discusses the nostalgia of the spooky and fun celebration but also the weight of dead relationships during this time that seems to linger as she sings, “Always surprised by what I’d do for love / Some things I’ll never expect”. Through this, Bridgers powerfully connects with her listeners as she awakens some of the most relatable human emotions.
It is fair to say that nobody expected the last track on the album ‘I Know The End’; this track is a terrific demonstration of Bridgers’ lyrical gift. “I’m not afraid to disappear / The billboard said, ‘The End Is Near’,” sings Bridgers as the song reaches its triumphant climax. Perhaps the most relevant song to appear in 2020, the song fantasises about the end of the world as Bridgers concedes that perhaps the end is in fact closer than we think. A stark contrast to the eery elegance of the folk-inspired start of the song, a dramatic chorus of voices, bombastic percussion, and brass is ignited during the outro of the song. It is unlike anything Bridgers has ever produced. Almost apocalyptic in style, Bridgers intertwines significant elements of each track on the album in what can only be thought of as an incredible grand finale. If there was ever the perfect example of how to end an album in the most dramatic and unforgettable way possible, this is it! Finishing on one of the biggest climaxes in music date, ‘Punisher’ by the phenomenon that is Phoebe Bridgers is one of the best if not the best spectacles born out of 2020.
Words by Lucy Tessier