One way you can easily describe Phoebe Bridgers is prolific. The Los Angeles based singer/songwriter and producer has been working steadily since her debut album, the transcendent Strangers In The Alps, was released in 2017. In 2018, she joined up with the massively voiced Julian Baker and equally erudite Lucy Dacus for the boygenius EP and then in 2019 surprised dropped the amazing Better Oblivion Community Centre record with Bright Eye’s Conor Oberst and recently produced friend and bandmate, Christian Lee Hutson’s luminous debut album Beginners. It’s been a steady stream of recording and touring for Bridgers and now she is finally back with her Strangers follow up, the beautifully textured, emotional and complicated Punisher, which is out everywhere June 19th via Dead Oceans.
There is a lot happening on Punisher. These are songs that will make you laugh out loud and cry into your pillow and often at the same time. If the record were a movie, it would be described as “endlessly quotable” and you and your friends would be sporting t-shirts adorned with the lyrics of every other stanza. The production, courtesy of Bridgers herself with Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, is lush, dense, hypnotic and perfectly compliments the tone of Bridgers open and honestly direct lyrics. This all shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that has followed Bridgers career up to this point but, as an artist on Punisher, she has managed to take such a creative leap forward from her already outstanding oeuvre that it is, quite frankly, overwhelming. Her work has previously been described as “Indie Folk”, and while elements of that description do apply, the songs crafted for this album are more interesting, full of an emotional depth, which because all of this is coming from Bridgers herself, comes off as completely authentic. This authenticity lends a sincerely relatable quality to the songs that few artists are able to capture. Even though the album is packed with special guest turns from Bridgers boygenius bandmates Baker and Dacus, Conor Oberst, the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zimmer and Warpaint’s Jenny Lee Lindberg, among many others, it’s Bridgers singularly unique voice that comes through. It is rare that any album can really have it all but here we are.
Punisher kicks off with palate cleanser/tone setter “DVD Menu”. It’s a moody instrumental featuring some delightfully mournful strings that immediately sets you up for what’s to follow. Singles “Garden Song” and “Kyoto” follow this up, instantly pulling you into the world that Bridgers has created. “Garden Song” is carried along by Bridger’s understated and buoyant vocal melody that floats over an arpeggiated guitar and muted kick drum. One of the recurring themes that keeps popping up all throughout Punisher is this idea that Bridgers has everything that she could ever possibly want, feels bad about it or decides, maybe because of that, she actually doesn’t want it. On “Garden Song” she sings “No I’m not afraid of hard work/And I did everything I want/I have everything I wanted” and does so in such a mournful way that it’s hard to believe if she actually means it. “Kyoto” is the album’s most upbeat number, featuring some really joyous horn arrangements, and despite the joyful sound of the song, it features some very intense lyrics about personal resentment. In the chorus, Bridgers sings “I don’t forgive you/But please don’t hold me to it/Born under Scorpio skies/I wanted to see the world/Through your eyes until it happened/Then I changed my mind” and the result is pretty heartbreaking. This motif comes up again in “I See You”, with its pulsating drums and sharp guitar noise, she sings, “I’ve been playing dead my whole life, and I get this feeling, whenever I feel good, it’ll be the last time.” She laments a relationship that despite feeling something when seeing this person, the fact she hates their mom and how “I used to light you up/Now I can’t even get you/To play the drums,” which is hilariously specific but counters that with, “Cause I don’t know what I want/Until I fuck it up,” which is specifically shattering. Title track “Punisher” floats along on a piano riff and is based on her experiences with people mulling around her merch table after shows. “What if I told you/I feel like I know you/But we’ve never met/But it’s for the best.” The sentiment is sweet but it’s followed up with the revelation of this person not knowing how to start a conversation and, devastatingly, not knowing when to stop one. On the striking “Halloween” she details living next to a hospital and constantly being annoyed by the consistent sirens. So much too the point that her thought about “Being surprised on what I’d do for love/Something’s I’d never expect” transitions into a matter of fact statement of a visiting sports fan beaten to death outside of the stadium. Album centrepiece “Chinese Satellite” is the most anthemic song Bridger’s has ever put to tape. Her voice clear and purposeful over some very chorus drenched guitars, crashing drums and beautiful strings. Bridger’s displays a masterful sense of arrangement here. Where most bands would push, she pulls, creating tension in quieter moments and restrains her band, opting for something a little more special than just your typical “lighter in the air” moments. “Moon Song” is fully drenched in lush synths, subtle electronic drums and lines like “We hated Tears In Heaven/But it was sad that his baby died” that captures the tone of those simple late night confessions shared between lovers and friends. “Saviour Complex” is a straightforwardly strummed song about young love, elevated by Bridger’s deft hand at emotionally resonant vocal harmonies, that ends on a completely discordant twist. By the time we’ve arrived at the almost six minute long, incredibly dense and passionately charged album closer “I Know The End”, Bridgers has orchestrated a very personal account of what it is like to be a young person trying to navigate their way in the world we live in.
Punisher is a rare album. One that has been anxiously anticipated and also fulfills expectations on every level. There’s an understated charge that elevates every single moment in Bridger’s songs to the point where they are almost excruciatingly relatable. Yes, Phoebe Bridgers can be described as prolific but it’s more apt to describe her and her music as heartbreaking, hilarious, human and nostalgic for a time we’ve all lived and for moments we have yet too.
review by Adam Fink