Album Review: Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

Photo credit: Frank Ockenfels

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Phoebe Bridgers is changing the music game in the best way. The California-born and raised indie-rock musician just put out her sophomore album, Punisher, and it came at a really good time. 

“I’m not pushing the record until things go back to ‘normal’ because I don’t think they should,” she tweeted the day before the scheduled release date, “Here it is a little early. Abolish the police. Hope you like it.”

As a 25-year-old growing up in the age of the internet, her social media presence is legendary. With an Instagram handle like @_fake_nudes_ comprised mainly of meme reposts on her story, Bridgers is not just another artist looking for clout. Not to mention her strong Twitter game with her tweets about how sick Bob Dylan is, and feeling like a lady when her ex challenged another ex to a fight in a gas station parking lot. A personal favourite: “showing a boy elliott smith makes me sexually attracted to myself.” Maybe it’s the fact that her website is phoebefuckingbridgers.com, or her recent tour playing shows from her kitchen, bathroom, and bedroom in isolation – she’s hard not to fall in love with. 

There is a definite shift from her debut album, Stranger in the Alps from 2017 which was full of hatred and resentment, dealing with multiple troubling relationships in her life. In an NPR interview, Bridgers says that Punisher “kinda feels like a graduation.”

We’re eased into the album with a 1-minute interlude, “DVD Menu” that would set the tone for the rest of the 11 songs. The first single “Garden Song” is a psychedelic experience. At the same time, it’s a reality check to the relevant and perturbed feelings of believing in the good of the world. Her tranquil sound is subtly accompanied by a low male voice you can only truly hear deep inside your headphones. There is a pulsating hum throughout the song that evokes sci-fi vibes. 

“Kyoto” is the bop of the record, as we enter her inner thoughts on touring Japan. It is a battle between hating touring while on tour, then going home and hating being home. One of those moments when you realize you’ll miss the moment as you’re living in it.

Her songwriting is self-aware, yet universally relatable. It has a dark tinge of loneliness, but her carefully crafted folk songs share that she is just as anxious as the rest of us, as she sings about the trials and tribulations of life itself. The lyrical content is unmatched, intertwining tiny details and specific timestamps like saltines, rusty swing sets, Goodwills and 7-Elevens. Each song is a story of its own.

The album title is a piano-heavy ballad about one of Bridgers’ noted influences, Elliott Smith. “When the speed kicks in / I go to the store for nothing / And walk right by the house where you lived with Snow White.” She alludes to being a punisher herself – a funny term for when someone talks excessively about a subject matter (in this case, Elliott Smith) to the point where no one cares anymore. Bridgers makes a bold move by naming the album something that she’s afraid to admit to being. 

Photo credit: Frank Ockenfels

“Halloween” is a not-so-funny but funny song. It’s about trying to save a relationship that’s already dead, just to hold on to the holidays. She uses dark humour to convey her honest feelings about living next to a hospital, “The sirens go all night / I used to joke that if they woke me up / Somebody better be dying.” 

In the middle of the album, “Chinese Satellite” is one that looks up at the stars at night and yearns for answers. Bridgers says herself that it’s about “turning 11 and not getting a letter from Hogwarts.” It is an ode to realizing that you are the only person who has total control over your own life. 

“Moon Song” is a heartbreaker, as she sings about waiting like a dog with a bird at the door for someone, and her memories of her relationship. It is a hyper-specific song that describes the complexity of her feelings, like hating ‘Tears In Heaven’ and fighting about John Lennon. It is a piercing song that hits hard in the feels. “Saviour Complex” is thematically the sequel to “Moon Song.” It is the most categorically folk-rock song on the album with vivid, heartfelt lyrics. 

Previously released as “I See You,” the final single renamed, “ICU” is an ironic nod to the hospital she neighbours and existing in the wake of a pandemic. Her dark humour shines through again in this one, “I’ve been playing dead my whole life.” She is not afraid to share that this song is about the breakup with her drummer, and moving from strangers to friends while working so closely together. It is a hostile, but confident love song. 

Bridgers is a hard worker. With two albums out, multiple side hustles and musical projects, she surely has made a name for herself at the young age of 25. In perhaps one of her best songs yet, “Graceland Too” features her boygenius bandmates Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. Later she credits emo legend, Conor Oberst from their duo project, Better Oblivion Community Center for his help on the album. Plus, she has appeared on songs with The National, The 1975, and Jackson Browne. 

She sings about the daily grind of a touring musician in the album finisher, “I Know The End.” It is the longest track that depicts a literal apocalypse with mentions of sirens, chasing tornadoes, and the fear of God. It’s the nicest song, that turns into the most aggressive song that describes her take on touring: essentially the end of the world, and she just wants to go home. She sings, “Three clicks and I’m home… Romanticize the quiet life / There’s no place like my room.” At the end, she stares up at a billboard that says “THE END IS NEAR” and the album fades out into oblivion. Like the rest of her generation, she pokes fun at the mundane fears of a potential apocalypse. In the two-part song she laments, “Yeah, I guess the end is here.” She screams and then laughs. 

A lot of this record lies on the feathered edge of fantasy and reality. It is a romanticized flâneur walk through a dreamscape city full of ghosts. Although it is full of feelings of contradiction, the album radiates self-discovery. Phoebe Bridgers is not just a Twitter fiend or an indie darling – she is an incredible storyteller in her own right. 

Punisher is out now via Dead Oceans. 

Ryley Remedios

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