2020 Music Reviews

Album Review: Phoebe Bridgers ‘Punisher’

Phoebe Bridgers Punisher

Millennial angst found its poet laureate when Phoebe Bridgers released her debut album Stranger in the Alps in 2017. Utilising twin aesthetics of emo-alternative rock and wistful Americana folk, the Los Angeles-born songwriter’s appeal was immediately rooted in the prescience of her lyrics. Her words — a combination of Tumblr-ready, precision-engineered proverbs and effusive, imagery-driven poetics — distill the shared anxieties of a post-9/11 generation coming of age amid successive societal cataclysms beyond its control. Bridgers describes the protagonist of “Graceland Too,” the penultimate track of her second album Punisher, as a “rebel without a clue,” shrewdly and elegantly pinpointing the position that today’s 20-somethings have been forced into as the world won’t stop crashing down around them.

Though Punisher is Bridgers’ second album in earnest, arriving three years after her first, it lands less as an awaited reemergence and more like the closing of a detailed first act. Like most millennials, Bridgers’ development in the past few years has been a public one — her consistent, irreverent social media presence and highly productive collaborative output mean that she has barely slipped out of the public consciousness for a moment. Bridgers has been heard on the 2018 Boygenius EP alongside fellow emergent songsmiths Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, and on 2019’s Better Oblivion Community Centre album with seasoned pro and Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst (all collaborators make appearances on Punisher). By broadcasting each stage of her growth as part of a larger community of artists to her fervently attentive audience, the challenge that Bridgers has given herself is instead to cement her individual longevity and capability with a definitive statement.

Across Punisher, there is indeed an assuredness to the craft that confirms Bridgers’ control of her unique and considerable talents. All that was present on Stranger in the Alps to inspire the acclaim and adoration Bridgers now enjoys is here again in droves. There’s plenty of earnest finger-picked folksiness and melancholic introspection on tracks such as desperate love letter “Moon Song” or twisted holiday ode “Halloween,” yet Bridgers elaborates on her signature mode by reinforcing it with a clarity and sense of purpose. Each song feels like an event, like it’s about something specific and tangible. Take the aforementioned “Halloween,”  which promises in its chorus that “we can be anything,” imbuing the morbid, heavily-commercialised holiday with a sense of opportunity and romance activated by Bridgers’ knack for approaching the mundane from the left field.

More by Rhys Handley: Album Review: Hayley Williams ‘Petals for Armor’

Phoebe Bridgers Punisher

Punisher’s production (credited to Bridgers, mainstay Tony Berg and singer-songwriter Ethan Gruska) is instrumental to how the featured artist embellishes the wide-eyed but deceptive simplicity of her songwriting. Often, fractures and snatches of sampled vocal or electronics add ethereal augmentations to the simplest tune. Opener “Garden Song” is an excellent folk track supported by a sprightly guitar line — its wry anecdotes about a missing “skinhead neighbor” and a vivid verse-long description of Bridgers’ own enigmatic recurring dream are early confirmations of her exemplary lyricism — but in compressing that guitar line so it sounds submerged underwater, the words are given an extra layer of pathos. The listener is invited to drown in Bridgers’ ennui just for a few minutes, along with their own.

Other tracks on Punisher are more explicitly ambitious, reaching beyond the quiet contemplation that typified Stranger in the Alps for a larger, further-reaching sound. Lead single “Kyoto” is driven by bright guitars and horns at a significantly quicker tempo than Bridgers’ listeners would naturally expect, leaning into a jangling 90s-alternative sound that lifts up its lyrics’ cutting, pained sketches of a shitty, absent father. “Chinese Satellite” is a massive power-pop anthem, designed to fill stadiums with its soaring guitars and strings that feed into the yearning and loss that its words articulate. “I See You” is as much a pounding call to arms as it is a visceral breakup song, with its palpable Americana bolstering Bridgers’ direct, devastating assessments of living a life blighted by constant defeat — “I get this feeling whenever I feel good, it’ll be the last time.”

What makes Punisher an exciting 40-minute listen is that its divergences into new territory are grounded in Bridgers’ clear sense of who she is right now — a lost young slacker stumbling forward and making mistakes — even if she’s still grasping uncertainly for who she will become. This universally sympathetic character is at the heart of every song on the record. It can be found in title track “Punisher,” written like a letter to Bridgers’ muse and emo-folk precursor Elliott Smith, as she reaches longingly to lost figures of the past for meaning while processed strings and synths shift forlornly beneath her languorous vocal. It’s there in the deft prom night balladry of “Savior Complex” which picks over the tattered pieces of a failed “emotional affair.” Bridgers never gets lost among the intriguing experiments, often cutting through with a single, show-stopping line that offers sage wisdom and raw vulnerability in equal measure (see: “I’ve been running around in circles pretending to be myself” or “One day I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life”).

It’s that careful balancing of insight and humanity that made Bridgers such a formidable and influential force in such a short space of time. Her career is arguably still in its nascent stages, but there’s an irresistible appeal to an artist simultaneously expressing their fullest self and embracing their own incompleteness. Closing track “I Know the End” ties up many of the loose strands of Punisher, and arguably the whole first phase of Bridgers’ story, while tantalisingly suggesting what comes next. The track’s fairytale lyrics nod to The Wizard of Oz (“Three clicks then I’m home […] There’s no place like my room”), a ur-text on self-realisation, before the misty-eyed folksiness explodes out into a crowd-vocal, arena-optimised bridge and ultimately breaks down into death metal-like howls and prog-influenced instrumentals. Bridgers, like all her millennial contemporaries, contains multitudes as yet unseen. She is living any number of lives all at once — but, at the core of it all, there’s still a vulnerable child of the 90s adrift in a merciless world, reaching out for connection and meaning. Given the state of things right now, that quality is exactly what makes Phoebe Bridgers the perfect voice for her generation.

Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.