Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher Album Review

By Zoe Elter
Music Journalist

It’s impossible to fully articulate the experience that is listening to a Phoebe Bridgers song, let alone an entire album. With spectral vocals and bleak lyrics layered over soft-focus production, every piece Bridgers’ puts out resembles a strange lullaby. You know the words are scary, but somehow the truth is what calms you.

Tangled in the middle of so much negativity and hardship that seems to be going on around us, the June release of Bridgers’ sophomore album, Punisher, is a match lit in the dark.

Bridgers’ refrained from pushing the release back, even releasing the album a day earlier than planned as a gift to her followers. As I read the comments on this Instagram post, I couldn’t put into words how much this album has impacted listeners. However, @Spindrift did: “Isn’t it incredible that we all have the same beautiful Phoebe soundtrack playing today regardless of our different lives and physical distances?”

The answer is a resounding yes.

The album opens with “DVD Menu,” a chilling instrumental that is both a reflection of the melody of the album’s closing song and a homage to the last song on her first album. It’s a strong and methodical foundation. “It just felt rounded out to me to do that, to lead into this album,” Bridgers states via Apple Music.

And what comes next is everything one could expect from Phoebe Bridgers and more. Punisher is filled with lyrics that bite, hidden-gem collaborations and stories that deserve to be heard.

The songs that follow—”Garden Song” and “Kyoto”—were released, in that order, as singles prior to the album’s debut.

Filled with glimpses of her hometown and adolescence, “Garden Song” features background vocals from Bridgers’ tour manager. The song is ultimately about how dreams, both good and bad, can become reality if given the power to do so. The distorted guitars and closing lyrics (No, I’m not afraid of hard work/I get everything I want/I have everything I wanted) gives a dream-like glimmer of hope.

On the other hand, “Kyoto” is a tale of dissatisfaction told through the lens of, what seems to be, a conversation with Bridgers’ estranged father. The music video was released in April. Although planning to film in Japan, the video was instead filmed over a green screen due to social distancing concerns.

With the use of horns and a lighter, more upbeat instrumental, you might miss the colder lyrics. She uses the complicated relationship with her father and the feeling of always wanting to be someplace else, in parallel, to show that the grass is never greener on the other side.

The fourth song and title track “Punisher”—which is music slang for an overly attentive fan—is a message from Bridgers’ to Elliot Smith, who she regards very highly. “I go to the store for nothing/And walk right by the house where you lived with Snow White,” eloquently refers to the Los Feliz Snow White Cottages, where Smith once lived.

Bridgers’ speaks for anyone who has ever had a strong dedication to an artist (What if I told you/I feel like I know you?/But we never met… everyone knows you’re the way to my heart) and does it alongside an eerie piano ballad track.

 Whether it’s touching on her breakup with drummer Marshall Vore in “ICU” or the hopeless feeling that comes with realizing that no one can save you but yourself in “Chinese Satellite,” the album is filled with heartbreak.

The most notable thematic construct throughout the entire album is the idea of having a savior complex.

Bridgers’ collaborates alongside her friend Christian Lee Hutson and Bright Eyes’ Frontman—and Bridgers’ partner in Better Oblivion Community Centre—Conor Oberst, in “Halloween.” A song that is about a failing relationship and trying your best to save it one last time. The chorus (Baby, it’s Halloween/And we can be anything) is heartbreaking and is the first glimpse listeners get at a savior complex that Bridgers’ makes a key point of addressing throughout the album.

Multiple songs on the album feature the pain of loving someone who can’t understand why you feel that way. “Caring about someone who hates themselves is really hard, because they feel like you’re stupid. And you feel stupid,” Bridgers recalls in regards to “Moon Song” and its thematic sequel “Savior Complex.” You can feel her pain in first-person in both of the guitar oriented pieces.

The theme carries all the way into the closing song, “I Know the End” where she parallels “Moon Song” with the idea of being a dog bringing its owner a dead bird. (And when I call, you come home/A bird in your teeth). It’s a grueling image to picture and a heavy weight to carry, especially for anyone who can relate.

In all honesty, I could write an entire novel about every startling metaphor Bridgers managed to make use of in this album, but the best way to experience it is to listen to the album yourself. Her authenticity and transparency overflows from every edge of the 11-track album in a way that makes it impossible to stop listening. Noteworthy in its entirety and a beautiful soundtrack of simplicity and solitude, Punisher is an album that will live on for ages.

Featured image retrieved from Phoebe Bridgers.

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