Since breaking through with her debut album ‘Stranger in the Alps’, Phoebe Bridgers has built up a loyal cult following and received rave critical reviews for her music. Both her solo debut album and her ‘Better Oblivion Community Center’ project with Conor Oberst set the bar high for Bridgers second album ‘Punisher’. With that said, anyone eagerly awaiting this album’s release is unlikely to be disappointed, with ‘Punisher’ not just meeting, but exceeding, the expectations set by Bridgers earlier work.
With ‘Punisher’, Bridgers sets herself apart from the hoards of young, depressive indy musicians that currently exist. While most singers deal in generalities, Bridgers goes into exhaustive detail in her lyrics and sings about events that other singers would deem too small, too specific to sing about (“Stared at the chem trails / with my little brother / he said you called on his birthday / you were ten days off”). This feature of Bridgers music, as well as her use of a second-person point of view, makes her music feel uniquely intimate – as if she is singing to you, and only you.
At times, it’s easy to get lost in Bridgers luscious, soft vocals, but as soon as this happens, she pulls you back in with shocking lyrics – whose sombreness is juxtaposed by the softness of Bridgers voice. There are countless examples of these types of lyrics throughout the album, but some that stand out include: “No longer a danger to herself or others” and “We hate Tears in Heaven / But it’s sad that his baby died” (a reference to the Eric Clapton song about his four-year-old’s death from a 49-story fall). The stark lyrics, attention to detail and references to world events that other artists would never think to write about (such as the murder of a dodgers fan outside a stadium), makes ‘Punisher’ one of the most interesting albums to come out of 2020.
What’s fascinating about this album, however, isn’t just the surprising, sombre lyrics, it’s also everything else. Bridgers has an ability to bring otherwise unremarkable lyrics (such as, “I get everything I want / I have everything I wanted”) and bring them to life. Much of ‘Punisher’ feels effortless and undeniably authentic. In bucking popular music trends and singing about things few other artists would ever think to sing about, Bridgers makes it clear that she’s not out here trying to seem edgy or shocking – which, ironically, makes her come across even more edgy and shocking. On ‘Punisher’, Bridgers sings lyrics that would be met by scepticism if they were sang by anyone else, but when sang by her, sound 100% real and genuine.
‘Punisher’ has a distinctly tragic quality to it. While many albums start off by offering a dilemma and then slowly reaching a resolution, ‘Punisher’ does the opposite. The album’s second track, ‘Garden Song’ – which is preceded by ‘DVD Menu’; a 70 second, moody, mysterious introductory track reminiscent of a James Bond theme tune – is the album’s most positive track; including lyrics like “My resentment’s getting smaller” and “I get everything I want”.
Then, throughout the album, the themes get darker. Fifth track ‘Halloween’ explores the sound of ambulances going back and forth to a children’s hospital and, seventh track ‘Moon Song’ touches on the aforementioned death of Eric Clapton’s son. However, it is perhaps the sixth track ‘Chinese Satellite’, that is the most tragic and most memorable from this album. The lyrics deal with the conflict between Bridgers deep desire to have some sort of spiritual/religious faith and her inability to take the leap and believe (“I want to believe / Instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing / …I want to be wrong”, “I think when you’re gone, it’s forever”).
The album’s buildup in angst culminates in the final – and longest – track of the album, ‘I know the end’. While beginning as a slower, softer song, it transitions half way through to a triumphant, bass-heavy, apocalyptic sound. In the final verse and outro, Bridgers sings of cracked lips, fearing God, haunted homes and slaughterhouses. Then, as the song gets progressively louder, Bridgers declares repeatedly “the end is here”, before a loud scream and a booming cacophony of instruments take the song – and the album – to it’s endpoint.
The progression of this album (starting off with an understated introduction and second song, while ending with the chaos and uncertainty of ‘I Know The End’) is unconventional, but perfectly captures the collective unrest of Millennials and Gen-Z; who have come of age in a world much bleaker and more unequal than they had been made to expect by future generations. At 25 years old, Bridgers – who stands on the borderline between Millennials and Gen-Z – is uniquely capable of capturing the angst of both generations and, nowhere is this done better than in ‘I Know The End’. And, if this is indeed the end, who better to play us out than Phoebe Bridgers.