Phoebe Bridgers Delivers a Depressingly Beautiful Album With ‘Punisher’

 

On June 18, 2020, Phoebe Bridgers released her sophomore album, “Punisher,” a day earlier than scheduled. In a tweet, Bridgers said, “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.”

Brutally honest and shamelessly herself, this one tweet offers an insight into Bridgers’ character. Her music is often categorized as emo-folk, and the singer-songwriter is known for her carefully crafted lyrics and stripped back instrumentals that create addictively depressing songs. 

Now as an established force in the indie music world, Bridgers’ second solo album reveals her mastery over her craft. In an interview with Uproxx, Bridgers said, “I made the whole record knowing that people were going to hear it. And I made the first record [“Stranger in the Alps”] being like, ‘I wonder if I’m going to have to get a day job after this.’ Mostly I just wanted it to be better than the first record, which I think it is.”

Prior to the release of “Punisher,” Bridgers released three singles — “Garden Song,” “Kyoto” and “I See You” — all during the changing realities of 2020. While the album discusses heartbreak, imposter syndrome and fans who unload their trauma, the most glaring theme of “Punisher” is a recognition of the mundane. Bridgers sees through the walls we put up and addresses the generational sadness we experience — even when we’re not living through a pandemic. 

Tracks

“Punisher” opens with “DVD Menu,” a dark soundscape that primes the listener for an album full of beautiful sad songs. This introduction then blends into “Garden Song,” a glittering track that showcases Bridger’s gentle and soft vocals. Even if she thinks she has an “apathetic singing voice,” her lyrics call attention to her stories of nightmares, dreams and trying to find a balance between resentment and hope. 

In both the collection of singles and the album as a whole, “Kyoto” stands out as one of the more upbeat tracks — full of pumping guitar riffs and peppered in horn accompaniments. But, no matter how upbeat “Kyoto” seems on the surface, it reflects Bridger’s experiences with impostor syndrome. Bridgers explains that “Kyoto” is “about being in Japan for the first time, somewhere [she has] always wanted to go, and playing [her] music to people who want to hear it, feeling like [she is] living someone else’s life.” On “Kyoto,” Bridgers also demonstrates her ability to incoporate more humorous lyrics — “You called me from a payphone / They still got payphones,” even though she has admitted, “I totally made that up… I’ve never even Googled it.” In the midst of disassociating, Bridgers reflects on a complex relationship with her father — who called on her brother’s birthday, but was “off by like ten days.” Bridgers sings, “I don’t forgive you,” but throughout “Kyoto,” she admits she has changed her mind in the past, so she concedes, “please don’t hold me to it.”

The album’s titular track, “Punisher,” references a fan meeting their idol or favorite artist. As a long time fan of Elliot Smith, Bridgers said that “Punisher” is “basically Elliott fan-fiction. If we were alive at the same time I think I might have been a little bit of a brutalizer to him, which punisher is a short term for. Just someone who doesn’t know when to stop talking, and might follow you home.” Bridgers sings, “What if I told you / I feel like I know you? / But we never met” — it’s clear to see her deep appreciation for Smith, but in her own experiences she recognizes how her actions could become overbearing. 

Bridgers is frequently seen donning a skeleton costume in her music videos, and even sports it on the album cover, so it may come as no surprise that Bridgers released a track about “Halloween.” While the track discusses the holiday and murder, its introspective moments offer insight into an identity crisis — Halloween is the one time where “we can be anything,” but this fact is applied to an unhealthy relationship as Bridgers repeats, “Whatever you want / I’ll be whatever you want.”

As the last single from the album, “I See You” brings awareness to both Bridgers’ own mental state and her thoughts on an ex. Bridgers realizes, “I’ve been playing dead / My whole life / And I get this feeling whenever I feel good / It’ll be the last time.” Originally, these lyrics about depression echoed a generational shift — in her interview with Uproxx, Bridgers said, “So many people fought for a better world before us [millenials], like our parents. And now we’re just fighting to even stay alive. People have stopped romanticizing the future.” But now, as we live through a pandemic, these sentiments of isolation and depression ring truer than ever. 

Before listening to the album in full, I had expected to prefer the faster-paced tracks like “Kyoto” and “I See You,” but lately, I keep returning to “Graceland Too.” Bridgers has shared that “Graceland Too” centers around the pain from “caring about someone who hates themselves and is super self-destructive.” As one of the more traditional folk songs on the album, this ballad perfectly pairs gentle string instrumentals with Bridgers’ airy vocals that course through heartbreaking lyrics — Bridgers 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 / At a sleeve of saltines on my floor and I knew then / I would do anything you want me to.”

“Punisher” closes with “I Know the End,” finally embracing the apocalyptic imagery sprinkled throughout the album. Her experiences of heartbreak and her anger with current political climates are equated to the post-apocalypse — full of rusty swing sets, haunted suburban houses and billboards that read “The End Is Near” — leaving Bridgers in complete isolation. As the song concludes in a bout of rage and screams, Bridgers’ gentle vocals no longer mask her frustration with the world. 

Final Verdict

“Punisher” is a breathtaking and depressingly beautiful album. Bridgers’ songwriting prowess is evident on each and every track. If you’re able to listen past her hauntingly beautiful vocals, you’ll discover insightful and poetic songs that reflect universal emotions of depression, isolation and coping with finding yourself. 

5/5

 

k.button@dailyutahchronicle.com   

@kateannebutton 

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