REVIEW: Phoebe Bridgers explores relationships, growing up on “Punisher”

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In these unprecedented times of international turmoil, “Punisher,” the new album from Phoebe Bridgers, fittingly carries with it an end of the world motif that creates a nearly dystopian collection of songs. During a pandemic and a national movement for racial justice, Bridgers also elected not to promote her album, and instead focus on the issues at hand in our society

However, “Punisher” is interlaced with Bridgers’ imaginative lyricism and eerie production which births enchanting songs that contain elements of bedroom pop, brooding indie rock and the familiar alternative folk tones from her first album in 2017, “Stranger in the Alps.”Although not necessarily conventional in her approach to making a ‘folk’ record, Bridgers uses poetic storytelling in every track like those who came before her. She even has a track about stalking the late indie legend Elliot Smith. 

“Punisher” is a mournful collection of memories that circulate around Bridgers’ personal experiences while still asking universal questions on the state of humanity and our current isolation. 

The album starts off with the instrumental track, “DVD Menu,” which is mostly an intro into “Garden Song,” however, it also sets the stage for the underlying musical elements of the album with a grand sting arrangement fused together with despondent folk guitar riffs. As “Garden Song” unfolds, there is a sonic ambiance that creates images of a graveyard or a rainy day through the persistent distorted guitar and bass loop. 

Another musical element that adds to the bewitching nature of the song is the deep bass backup vocals from Bridgers’ tour manager on the chorus. Lyrically, the track is a reflection on Bridgers’ dreams manifesting into her life, “When I grow up, I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life. And it’s gonna be just like my recurring dream. I’m at the movies. I don’t remember what I am seeing. The screen turns into a tidal wave.” Here, Bridgers displays her songwriting dynamism as she describes the existential dread and surreal components of growing old through metaphorical comparisons. 

The remainder of “Punisher” unfolds in waves of moody production with some tracks following the eerie musical elements of  “Garden Song” and other tracks like “Graceland Too” evoking country comparisons. However, the dystopian atmosphere is present throughout the entire album, and it is most evident on the tracks “Punisher” and “Halloween.” 

The title track is a piano-driven ballad that has a brilliant string section bending in and out of the production. It also features some of the most distorted vocals Bridgers has ever used, which, in turn, conceives choir-like moments throughout the song. 

“Halloween” on the other hand, is a ruminating track that seems to articulate the grief found in losing love and also the masks people wear to gain affection from someone else. Its production feels spooky and somber at the same time, with a string section so eclectic it almost sounds percussive. The track is further enhanced with sounds familiar to Halloween placed throughout and distant drums added halfway through the track. It ends with Bright Eyes lead singer, Conor Oberst’s vocals sneaking in beside Bridgers,’ and both of them repeating the line, “I’ll be whatever you want.” 

A track that feels out of place on the album is surprisingly the popular single, “Kyoto.” The song doesn’t completely fit into the mold of the otherwise brooding album. It is much more upbeat and includes a joyous horn section that is distinctly indie rock as opposed to the folk present throughout the rest of the album. Although “Kyoto” at face value does not seem to be a cohesive part of “Punisher,” the lyrics of the song tie into the recurring themes in the album.

The album holistically surrounds the lyrical topics of the hardships in growing up, the complexities of falling in and out of love and the state of world peace. “Kyoto” contains all of these themes and specifically focuses on Bridgers’ relationship with a parent in her life, “You called me from a payphone, they still got payphones. It cost a dollar a minute, to tell me you’re getting sober and you wrote me a letter but I don’t have to read it,” and then later in the song, “I wanted to see the world through your eyes until it happened. Then I changed my mind. Guess I lied.” 

Clearly, at times “Punisher” veers sonically away from the gloomy dystopian sound, like with the stand-alone “Kyoto,” regardless though, Bridgers tells a connected lyrical story throughout the album.

The highpoint of the album both sonically and lyrically comes in the form of the final track, “I Know the End.” The lyrics are both robust with intricate allusions and metaphors and angelic in their meaning. 

The lyrics are focused on the drive Bridgers has been taking to northern California from LA since she was a kid, but it intertwines the crumbling world around her with memories from the years of driving the same highway, “Driving out into the sun. Let the ultraviolet cover me up. Went looking for a creation myth, ended up with a pair of cracked lips. Windows down, scream along. To some America first rap country song. A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall. Slot machines, fear of God.” 

Sonically, the song starts with the same pondering folk guitars from the rest of the album and ends with Bridgers accompanied by a horn section and echoing drums, screaming, “the end is near.”

On “Punisher,” Phoebe Bridgers uses dreamy production and canny lyricism to explore the state of her relationships and their relation to the ‘normals’ of the world around her upending into chaos and revolution.