Review: Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
National Music Reviews
Phoebe Bridgers = John Prine + Jessica Lea Mayfield
Ghosts, haunts and masked beings populate the gray world of Phoebe Bridgers’ songs. These creatures are written directly into the 25-year-old’s lyrics, but they’re also alive between the lines. Floating track to track and album to album, these quiet entities persist in Bridgers’ music like the lingering emotions that follow us around through life. Punisher—the LA-based songwriter’s second solo album–is intensely shy, but also articulate and persistent, just like the characters who live within it.
Punisher is akin to the kid who anticipates Halloween with a special excitement reserved for taking shelter in a costume. A layer of disguise allows the vulnerable tenderness of these tracks to fully express itself. Definitive labeling based on a first impression would be neglectful of the range for interpretation that is available throughout Punisher. For example, “Moon Song” at first appears to be a straightforward heartbreak anthem. Bridgers offers a gorgeous and agonizing image of loss: “You’re holding me like water in your hands,” alongside the line “I am dreaming that you’re singing at my birthday and I’ve never seen you smiling so big.” This dichotomy of defeat and bliss reframes the breakup-song custom in a way that is unique to Bridgers: her songs do not explore any singular emotion without touching upon its adjacent and complementary counterparts. What’s the use of delving into grief without acknowledging the joy that led up to it?
“Kyoto” similarly defies its appearances. The first verse strings together a day in the life with a dry ambivalence ala Sun Kil Moon. “Day off in Kyoto / Got bored at the temple / Looked around at the 7-Eleven,” she sings. In an interview, Bridgers explained this song is about unshakable dissatisfaction and the trouble with involuntary dissociation. “[I’m] somewhere I’ve always wanted to go, playing my music for people who really want to hear it, and feeling…bad.” Despite this, upbeat horns from Bright Eyes’ Nathaniel Walcott and a catchy pop melody result in a song that is at once downtrodden and cheerful. This skillfully maintained balance gives the whole of Punisher an honest edge, and offers much to be uncovered during repeated listening sessions.
Since her solo debut, 2017’s Strangers in the Alps, Bridgers has contributed to two widely-embraced and lovely collaborations. Members of both boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center pop in at times to offer solidarity on Punisher. “Chinese Satellite,” with its spacey percussion and heavy reverb, could easily be a b-side from the Better Oblivion Community Center record. Fans of boygenius are rewarded with discreet hidden gems of backing vocals from both Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. In the form of surprising imagery and engaging wit, Bridgers’ songwriting on Punisher displays boldness and growth—it’s likely that her recent proximity to so many accomplished songwriters has something to do with this.
There is a high volume of lyrical content on Punisher. Read as raw text, the words of these songs resemble Amy Lowell prose poems but with an emo tinge. Behind the surface texture of intimate sadness, there is plenty of clever wordplay to be discovered. On “Halloween,” Bridgers darkly quips, “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.” Wielding her contemplative humor, Bridgers is able to lightly comment on death, artificiality, abuse and misguided faith. Her affinity for jest signals self-awareness—and a refreshing willingness to laugh in the midst of gloom.
“I Know the End,” the album’s closer, begins softly and builds into a deluge of apocalyptic noise, chaos and trumpets. In the process, Bridgers nods toward her millennial identity with a reference to a certain “America-first rap-country song,” and compiles perhaps the most strictly American list all time: “a slaughterhouse / an outlet mall / slot machines / fear of god.” The energetic peak of the album comes as hi-hat taps turn into thumping drum fills and Bridgers unleashes a screech with obvious cathartic benefit. It’s an intensely moving finale, and, like singles “Kyoto” and “Garden Song,” it’s even stronger in the context of the full album.
Punisher is prismatic, an elaborate optical illusion that is slow to reveal its full spectrum of feeling. Sometimes it sounds like a violent version of Kacey Musgraves, and sometimes it sounds like Glen Hansard wielding a vintage Omnichord. Like a masked trick-or-treater, it is difficult to label Punisher because it is not exactly what it seems, and it contains multitudes. One possible summary: Bridgers has made a nostalgia-soaked meditation on growth, solitude and departure. These songs are captivating at any level that a listener may choose to engage with them. After all, through the trickery and disguise, Punisher has a beautiful soul. –Austin Beck-Doss