‘Punisher’ is about 2020


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Singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers.

I don’t remember where I was or what I was doing the first time I listened to “Punisher,” the sophomore studio album by Phoebe Bridgers; if I had to guess, I was probably sitting in my apartment, trying to find a way to pass the time in another June day of nothing brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

All I know is once I started I couldn’t stop. 

“Punisher,” which was recorded between 2018-2019, is not a response to the unprecedented turmoil occurring within the last 12 months. Rather, the album is an exploration of relationships that have more questions than answers, nightmares and daydreams and, ultimately, a search for understanding in a world that offers none. 

Even though “Punisher” was not written about 2020 — which will go on to be remembered as a year that splintered life as we know it — Bridgers captures the amplified global feeling of isolation, contemplation, and restlessness without ever calling it by name. 

Relationships are at the center of the album, but reflection is a similarly powerful throughline, with Bridgers examining both familial and romantic ties, admiration for the idol she never met, and even her relationship — or lack thereof — with faith.

While ringing in a new year is often thought to be a sign of optimism and progress, 2020 has solidified the point that nothing, even aspects of life considered unshakably secure, is a given. Just as Bridgers questions and attempts to draw her own conclusions throughout the album’s 11 tracks, the past year leaves us with a multitude of unknowns, seemingly with the same throughline: “now what?”

In “Chinese Satellite,” one of the album’s most poignant tracks, Bridgers examines her desire to believe in something intangible, despite knowing that she can’t commit herself to something she can’t see. The song’s wrestling of her feelings toward faith is universal in an era where each day brings a new, seemingly permanent horror. 

Graceland Too,” a country-tinged collaboration with Boygenius bandmates Lucy Daucus and Julien Baker, sees Bridgers weave a tale of a woman throwing caution to the wind and starting a new, unburdened life; the simple repetition of “She can do anything she wants to do” is enough to inspire emotion when the current state of the world has left so many feeling powerless and stagnant. 

In the album’s final — and best — track “I Know the End,” Bridgers finds the answers she has been searching for. While initially beginning as a reflective ballad on lost relationships and a longing for home, the song builds to a bombastic soundtrack for the apocalypse, evoking imagery of driving into a tornado, free of any of the previous uncertainty.

In “I Know the End,” Bridgers accepts that life as we know it is chaos, taking an almost comically passive tone with the line “Yeah, I guess the end is here.” In the album’s closing moments, Bridgers lets out a primal wail, as if to rid herself of all the pain and confusion established throughout the previous tracks. By accepting the chaos enveloping her, she is free of the constant pondering, anxiety, and heartache.

Let’s hope 2021 feels like that scream.