Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

27 Jul

The music that 25-year-old Californian Phoebe Bridgers makes sounds like the antithesis of that sunny west-coast sound you’d expect. With a debut album (the critically acclaimed Stranger in the Alps) and two music groups (indie cult favourites boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center) under her belt, Bridgers returns to the forefront with emo-folk Punisher.

Phoebe Bridgers has a talent for the unexpected; her lyrics swing between bitingly honest introspection and wry, deadpan humour, often in the same breath. On Punisher, Bridgers explores themes of resentment, fame and troubled relationships, but adds texture to her tracks with a subtle running motif of an apocalypse that’s right around the corner. The end result is an album that is simultaneously emotionally complex, and yet surprisingly funny.

Punisher sets itself up as sinister and cinematic on intro track “DVD Menu”, and immediately shatters that expectation with “Garden Song”, a Sufjan Stevens-esque track that conveys its message of resentment and nostalgia, through mixed metaphors of murdered skinheads and haunted gardens. Bridgers introduces us to the concept of a ‘punisher’, with her title track “Punisher“. According to her, it refers to a fan who doesn’t know when to stop talking. Throughout her album, she explores both sides of the narrative, of being a punisher and of dealing with a punisher. The track itself, though, is musically underwhelming and its lyrics veer on the edge of cheesy (“What if I told you/ I feel like I know you? / But we never met”).

Bridgers truly hits her mark on “Kyoto”, which was released as a single in April. Possibly the only uptempo song on the album, the track contrasts feelings of wanderlust and homesickness, a peculiar mix of emotions that every young adult has experienced at some point. Yet somehow, the track is also simultaneously about Bridgers’ strained relationship with an estranged parent, without sounding like the topic was shoehorned in.

On “I See You” (initially named “ICU” and changed because of the pandemic), Bridgers pulls a classic bait-and-switch. She draws you in with a beautiful, deep metaphor that makes you think about the nature of adult relationships (“If you’re a work of art, I’m standing too close/ I can see the brush strokes”) and immediately hits you with an almost laugh-out-loud petty complaint (“I hate your mom/ I hate it when she opens her mouth”). The closing track, “I Know The End” starts with some classic Americana lyrical imagery and suddenly shifts gear into visuals of apocalyptic billboards, government drones and alien spaceships. The album fades out with a literal cacophony of screaming voices, which is an oddly fitting end to an album that leaves you feeling raw, introspective and just plain sad, to be honest.

That’s the overall direction that Bridgers’ music seems to take. Punisher feels like a dream you wake up from with a sense of impending doom. The metaphors wander, the lyrics weave strange imagery, but you wake up with a general idea of what transpired. Punisher may not be for everyone. This is not, by any means, an easy listen: it’s complex and depressing at times, and Bridgers’ lyrics can be a little heavy-handed with the cynicism and gloom. But what you do get with Punisher, is flawless production value, interesting lyrical work and perhaps most importantly, a strong feeling of catharsis and closure.

Madhoo Palaka

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