Album Review: Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers creates intimacy in apocalypse. “No, I’m not afraid of hard work/I get everything I want/I have everything I wanted,” ends Punisher opener “Garden Song”. And for the moment, she does. Punisher has received critical acclaim since it’s release on June 18th. Pitchfork has branded it their “Best New Music”, and rightly so.
Punisher came a day earlier than expected, it’s original release date was June 19th— or Juneteenth, the day commemorating the official end of slavery in the United States. Out of respect for the holiday, the release date was moved. But Bridgers opted not to delay the release of her album due to the current political climate. She stated on Twitter “I’m not pushing the record until things go back to ‘normal’ because I don’t think they should.” She emphasized that conversations about police brutality and racial inequality aren’t a fleeting trend. The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted Bridgers, like the rest of the world. She delayed her world tour with The 1975 scheduled for this summer. Instead, she decided to “world tour” her home, posting performances from various rooms in her house.
I’m not pushing the record until things go back to “normal” because I don’t think they should. Here it is a little early. Abolish the police. Hope you like it.https://t.co/vmwERN0SOm
— traitor joe (@phoebe_bridgers) June 18, 2020
Phoebe Bridgers’s brand of indie rock is made for the millennial generation. She effortlessly drifts between ambitious lines about the existence of God and witty slights about hating her partner’s mom. Bridgers’s cheeky lines anchor her dreamy music into a tangible vessel; Bridgers herself. She becomes a likable narrator, sharing her trauma like an old friend.
After the haunting rumble of intro “DVD Menu”, the album opens with the first single “Garden Song”. The song suggests beautiful images of a house upon a hill, thousands of roses, and hedge mazes. But Bridgers also playfully alludes to murdering an unsavory neighbor and her childhood home burning down. This fraught dynamic exemplifies the album.
Bridgers is aspiring for better, whether in her personal relationships or in her state of mind. Some of the songs are more introspective. “Chinese Satellite” talks about atheism. Others reminisce about using drugs to help a friend through hard times on the banjo-heavy hum of “Graceland Too”.
Many of the songs on Punisher recount Bridgers helping significant others struggling with mental illness and sobriety. She has said “Caring about someone who hates themselves and is super self-destructive is the hardest thing about being a person, to me. You can’t control people, but it’s tempting to want to help when someone’s going through something…[the album is] a reflection of trying to be there for people.”
Bridgers’s music is often categorized as “sad girl” music, a title she hasn’t dismissed completely. While acknowledging her music is often downhearted, Punisher shows Bridger finding solace in small spaces. Bridgers revisits the trauma she discussed so poignantly on her debut Stranger in the Alps but there’s been a slight shift in perspective. Punisher embraces the chaos of living by acknowledging that even emotional damage can change shape over time. As she sings about her complicated relationship with her father on indie banger “Kyoto” she says “I don’t forgive you/But please don’t hold me to it”.
Punisher is coated with campy horror movie visuals and apocalyptic themes. Whether it be her signature skeleton suit (like the one worn by Jake Gyllenhaal in Donnie Darko), or the lo-fi video for “Garden Song” with Bridgers smoking a bong and having her brother scare her with terrifying masks.
The apocalyptic theme seems appropriate given the state of the world. This encapsulates album closer “I Know The End”, half a ballad about life on the road which ends with climatic group vocals, angry horns, violent percussion, and genuine screams. The outro includes featured vocalists from “the Phoebe Bridger cinematic universe” many of which appear on proceeding songs. Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, Julien Baker (with whom Bridgers and Lucy Dacus form the supergroup boygenius), and even Bridgers’s tour manager make appearances.
The song’s doomsday chorus recreates a rift from the intro “DVD Menu”, creating a sense of finality on Punisher. But it also shows Bridgers at her strongest; with the support of her frequent collaborators and friends. The panic of apocalypse seems almost omnipresent in modern society. But Bridgers finds intimacy with those she trusts. Fear seems manageable with the support of those you love. As “I Know The End” shouts coyly and deadpan “The billboard said “The End Is Near”/I turned around, there was nothing there/Yeah, I guess the end is here”.