Album Review : Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Ex-print music editor Aaron Loose reviews indie icon Phoebe Bridger’s sophomore album
Phoebe Bridgers didn’t set out to write the definitive lockdown album, and yet her darkly consoling style is well suited to the moment. In 2017, her debut Stranger in the Alps marked the twenty-five year old Californian as a talent with unique access into the scattered headspace of a young and financially precarious audience. The latest album is released into a historic period of global change, where the institutions of the past are crumbling and the future is as open as a scorpio sky. At once lushly cinematic and intricately involving, Punisher is the work of a brilliant songwriter who speaks for a generation who know there is no hope, but recognise that everything must change.
For her fans, Bridgers is the figurehead of a new wave of woman alternative musicians – think Soccer Mommy, Arlo Parks and Haim – who are reinterpreting the masculinist codes of nineties alternative rock to offer new readings of an old songbook. Look no further than early single ‘Motion Sickness’, a chugging track about the singer’s former relationship with Ryan Adams, an abusive musician who was protected by a fawning music press for way too long. Bridgers’s music, which is as sonically indebted to John Prine as to Paramore, cuts rock’s misogynist tropes down to size.
That’s not to suggest the first album was a flawless beginning. On Strangers, it sometimes felt as if Bridgers was auditioning multiple different sounds to varying degrees of success; the orchestral overdubs on ‘Georgia’ felt misjudged compared to the inward folk of ‘Funeral’. Punisher, however, is full of splashy yet effective musical choices, like the gorgeous horn arrangement on ‘Kyoto’ that blooms like a bed of sunflowers. Working with Tony Berg and producing herself for the first time, Bridgers leans towards eerie indie rock, alternating between gently strummed baritone guitars and gloomy mellotron hums. It is the sound of an artist turning the studio into a medium for translating their innermost feelings into a music that sounds like absolutely no one else.
This assurance as a producer is the fruit of Bridgers’s hectic production schedule. Unlike other artists who vanish after making acclaimed debuts, Bridgers kept busy between projects, racking up strong collaborations with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus (boygenius) and Bright Eyes bandleader Conor Oberst (Better Oblivion Community Centre). Whenever these players cameo on Punisher to lay down a lovelorn backing vocal or to work out an elusive lyric, it gives this sometimes bleak album the warm feel of a returning cast of friends who come together to record during rough times.
It might be too late for America, but it is never too late for a character in a Phoebe Bridgers song to find a moment of precious and deserved peace.
Listening to Bridgers’s gorgeously melancholy music feels like huddling together with your dearest friend during a power cut. Her songs are located in everyday apartments and drug stores, but the verses unfold like fog, drifting from one magical image to the next. ‘Garden Song’ slides across time and space, tracing a dreamlike American Gothic storyline that features a burning home and a half-remembered kiss at a movie theatre. There is a spooky pull in Bridger’s sweet delivery, particularly on the couplet “Everything’s growing in our garden/You don’t have to know that it’s haunted”, nudging towards the secret darkness that haunts a prettified suburb where Nazis live just next door.
You never get the impression that Bridgers is holding anything back, either. On the typically candid title track, she reaches out to the ghost of her longtime hero, Elliot Smith, whilst an ambient piano loop flickers in and out of focus like a fading radio signal. As she aimlessly wanders through a 24/7 – “I love a good place to hide in plain sight” – Bridgers struggles to imagine sentences fit for the beloved barroom regular who was “never not sweet” to his adoring followers. Songs about late songwriters can yield hokey results, but Bridgers manages it, creating a touching picture of what it means to have heroes and the daily struggle of meeting their mythologised example.
Like her noted inspiration Joan Didion – a fitting subtitle for Punisher would be “The Black Album” – Bridgers has an effortless gift for painting entire social landscapes within a single evocative sentence. On ‘I Know The End’, a raging widescreen closer that stands as her most ambitious statement yet, the songwriter captures our feelings of disappointment and alienation all too well. Told from the window of her tour bus, Bridgers sees visions of missing burnouts, hoax alien invasions, and “a haunted house with a picket fence, where I can float and ghost all my friends”. Although the track was written long before COVID-19, Bridgers picks up something that was already haunting the air – the creeping suspicion that the world was so past saving that our only option left was to sing cheesy pop songs while a tornado sent up the neighbourhood once and for all.
And yet, in an album where the singer literally shrugs at the apocalypse – “yeah, it’s the end, I guess” – there is still room for stories about the ordinary triumph of staying alive in 2020. ‘Graceland Too’, a richly observed portrait of a young woman in recovery, features the most direct storytelling of Bridgers’s career. Lifted slowly upward by the ascending notes of a pump organ, she gently sings “So we spent what was left of our serotonin/To chew on our cheeks and stare at the moon/Said she knows she lived through it to get to this moment”. It might be too late for America, but it is never too late for a character in a Phoebe Bridgers song to reach a state of precious and deserved peace.
On Punisher, songs matter so much. Last March, Bob Dylan released ‘Murder Most Foul’, a seventeen-minute soliloquy about the miraculous ways in which music holds us together during times of crisis. His wizened voice offered a playlist of regenerative anthems by great – and very male – artists; Little Richard, Hoagy Carmichael, and Frank Sinatra. The world cannot return to the way it was. However, when we are finally ready to look back upon this turbulent phase of our history, we will surely add Phoebe Bridgers’ good name to Uncle Bob’s canon of golden oldies. This is an essential album, and one that will be paying emotional dividends for a long time yet to come.