ALBUM REVIEW: Phoebe Bridgers -‘Punisher’

Words by Emily Hollitt AKA Malina Claire

In 2017 Bridgers released Motion Sickness, a cynical take on an abusive relationship that captured the hearts of many and began her trajectory towards the more commercial success we know her for today. “I hate you for what you did, and I miss you like a little kid” opens the track, perfectly summarising the impacts of a trauma bond in such a simple yet eloquent and straight to the point way. In February of last year I saw her play at The Zoo amidst exposing the predatory behaviour of Ryan Adams of which she had both been emotionally and professionally involved with. Before playing the track, she said;

“…all of us know women who have been through crazy shit but I’ve talked to very few men who are like, ‘Oh, I know, like, my friend, who’s a dude, hooks up with, like, underage girls, it’s so crazy.’ Like, nobody knows the abuser, I feel like, because people keep it so on the low, obviously… So just if you see your bros, like, hitting on underage girls, or being super entitled and crazy, like, call them out, because, yeah, that’s how this… goes on for way too long because enablers around them keep it going for, like, 15 fucking years.” (The Music)

To see an artist speak so candidly about things I had been through and that my friends had been through and share my frustrations made me feel so connected to her. To see her rise above her past and use her voice to help others inspired me, particularly when these conversations in the entertainment industry were the forefront of many conversations. Even before this, I saw myself in a lot of her music. Streamroller was the first song I ever heard from her, popping up on a Spotify curated playlist of recommendations, instantly reminding me of what it felt like to fall in love with my best friend. In Killer, I was reminded of the darker parts of myself and my affinity to learn about people like Jeffrey Dahmer and how they translate into fears related to getting close to somebody. She seemed to speak about so many parts of myself I didn’t know how to articulate and then some.

Today, Phoebe released her sophomore solo album ‘Punisher’. DVD menu opens the album- an atmospheric instrumental track, lead by a slightly off-kilter violin who’s note choice constantly feel off. I can tell just from the discomfort and intrigue of the introduction that the album is going to be honest, emotional. First single Garden Song follows, a cynical take on her life and the events that haunted her and shaped her. She sings as if she is talking in an innocent or conversational way, like the song was intended for somebody; “They’re growing roses on the flatbed, you should see it, I mean thousands.”. “I grew up here, until it all went up in flames, except the notches on the doorframe” she sings about her childhood home literally going up in flames. To The New Yorker she revealed this was also a metaphor as well for her parents’ divorce, leaving nothing of the house but the memories. The song continues to cover her life from her childhood onward, the events that happened to her expressed in an almost childlike manner- using a garden as a consistent metaphor for homeliness, for her sexuality and how all these things help her grow; “Everything’s growing in our garden. You don’t have to know it’s haunted.” In the last verse, she sings one of my favourite Phoebe lyrics ever; “The doctor put her hands over my liver. She told me my resentment’s getting smaller”, a metaphor about how resentment can form like a disease, but deplete over time, making way for peace of mind and personal growth.

Detailing her experiences with imposter syndrome, Kyoto tells an upbeat matter-of-fact story of when she went to Japan, a place she always wanted to go to, to play to crowds who knew her music, yet somehow still feel as though she didn’t belong. The track features Bright Eyes member Nathaniel Walcott playing the iconic horn solo. The horns, steady drum beat and driving guitar work along the repetitiveness of the lyrics to constantly project the song forward, acting as if we, as the listener, or moving forward through the adventure with her. Her voice in the chorus reaches in an almost strained, pleading tone, expressing her amazement and disproportionate feelings at the journey she is on. Atmospheric piano and crystallised synths open Punisher before her vocals enter, soaked in reverbbed and doubled by a vocoder to create a dream-like effect. “I feel like I know you” she sings so gently. The song references her affiliation for Elliot Smith and his music, referencing the term coined in the punk music scene of a ‘punisher’, a person who stays back after a gig to pick the brains of artists and to take up a lot of their time. She feels if she had ever met him before his tragic death, her infatuation would translate like that kind of devotee fan and he would not be interested in her or what she had to say, even though she felt so connected to him. The song works kind of like a love song where the love is unrequited- a beautiful insight in to how, particularly now in the times of social media, we feel like we know the people we idolise and we have a love for them they may not be able to match for us.

Halloween sounds like the folk version of Tim Burton’s 1994 ‘The Nightmare Before Christmas’, with it’s subtle bouncy guitar part and cinematic pad strings, featuring Warpaint bassist and singer/songwriter Jenny Lee Lindberg. “I hate living by the hospital, the sirens go all night. I used to joke that if they woke you up, somebody better be dying” she sings, demonstrating again her affinity for intertwining comedy with her emotions. “It’s Halloween, and we can be anything”. “Always surprised by what I’d do for love, some things I’d never expect. They killed a fan down by the stadium, was only visiting they beat him to death”. It features backing vocals by Bright Eyes, Conner Oberst who she formed Better Oblivion Community Centre with at the songs end. She subverts the idea of Halloween and wearing a mask in to her personal relationships, twisting the first chorus’ ending line to “I’ll be whatever you want”, demonstrating a subservience to her loved one- the want to wear a mask to shape herself in to the person they want her to be. Chinese Satellite presents an insight in to her brain when she’s been alone for too long. “I’ve been running around in circles pretending to be myself. Why would anybody do that on purpose?” she sings. The song picks up pace and she sings about seeing things on the walls. “Swore I could feel you through the walls, but that’s impossible…I want to go home”. The song circulates the ideas of loneliness; missing someone you want to be close to. The instrumentation consistently speeds up, invoking a sense of almost panic or desperation; an inherent longing.

“You couldn’t have stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody who loves you more. So I will wait for the next time you want me, like a dog with a bird at your door” she sings midway through Moon Song. This song seems to again explore her core subservient nature, wanting to mould herself to the person she loves- be there for them and be for them always. The music is simple and again resonates a overall dream-like atmospheric tone, as if we are stuck in Phoebe’s head with her- experiencing her fears and anxieties by her side. “If I could give you the moon, I would give you the moon.”. “When you saw the bird you started crying… but you know the killer doesn’t understand”, she sings, referencing her own song Killer, acknowledging the repeated themes of her own fears of abandonment and associated willingness to shape herself in to something to suit another. Saviour Complex handles similar themes, as presented in the title. “Emotional affair, overly sincere, smoking in the car, windows up, crocodile tears” she opens, setting the scene. “I’m too tired to have a pissing contest… show me yours, I’ll show you mine”. A sweet violin solo compliments the gentle guitars and soft drum beat. “One hand on the wheel, one hand in your mouth. Turn me on. Turn me down”. The song expresses a negative side of her inherent need to please, and how her compliant and submissive nature can be exploited by those she gets close too. The string section is large and cinematic, complimenting the imagery in the lyrics to play out like a film in the listeners mind, ending on a distorted, almost dystopian note to end the track.

ICU, my favourite of the 3 singles released in anticipation of the album, details her past relationship and current friendship with her drummer Marshall Vore. “I used to light you up, now I can’t even get you to play the drums” she sings, inviting fans to speculate it was about him. Confirmed by a simple tweet by Vore saying “new song out today where she hates my mom”, the song details how she sees Vore more now. A non-traditional love song of sorts. “I feel something when I see you now”, a beautiful sentiment towards their friendship. Graceland Too reunites her bandmates from project boygenius, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. “Doesn’t know what she wants or what she’s gonna do… a rebel without a clue” the song is more traditionally folk then than rest of the record, almost a country-ballad at points, supported not only by the instrumentation and solo violin, but also the narrative story-telling structure of the lyrics. “We took what was left of our serotonin to chew on our cheeks and stare at the moon…I knew that I would do anything you want me to, I would do anything for you”.

I Know the End closes the album. Featuring the boy genius trio again as well as repeat appearances from Bright Eyes’ Conner Oberst and Nathaniel Walcott. Many other names made their mark on the closing track, including long-time friend and band member Christian Lee Hudson, acclaimed singer/songwriter and producer Blake Mills (Fiona Apple, Laura Marling, John Legend, Perfume Genius), band member Harrison Whitford, singer/songwriter, The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s Nick Zinner and renowned drummer Nick Kelter (Plastic Ono Band, Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band, Travelling Wilbury’s) for a star-studded finale. The appropriately named tracks starts of slow and subtle, with Julien Baker-style atmospheric layered electric guitars. Phoebe’s vocals are reminiscent and gentle, floating about the instrumental perfectly. “But you had to go, I know, I know, I know…Not even the burn outs are out here anymore.”. Haunting synths introduce themselves as the song slowly builds, “I’m always pushing you away from me, but you come back with gravity, and when I call you come home, a bird in your teeth” she sings, subverting her past narratives further as this other person being subservient to her. “So I had to go. I know, I know, I know”. The song quickly erupts, starting with a soft violin before picking up the pace with the guitars and quickly the drums into a huge ending. “Windows down, scream alone… a slaughterhouse, an outlet mall, slot machines, fear of God” she sings faster and faster as the pace and the instrumentation builds. Deep toms play under a widening brass section. “I’m not afraid to disappear… I turned around, there was nothing there, Yeah I guess, the end is here”. Large choir-like voices repeat that line as the horn section grows, flutes and other synths and instruments are introduced. The song quickly grows more distorted and dystopian before coming to it’s close, using room noise of Phoebe mucking about in the studio breathing and laughing, grounding the listener before it stops. The perfect end to the perfect album.

Following the success of ‘Stranger in the Alps, the relatability and cult following of Better Oblivion Community Centre and the hauntingly beautiful songs of the boy genius EP, Phoebe yet again is able to capture a unique perspective on human nature, relationships with others and relationships with herself. Through narratives that play through her story-oriented lyricism, the organic and often cinematic instrumentation, the record plays out like a movie of Phoebe’s life that plays in the listeners head as if it was their own. Bridgers has an inherent knack for creating music with unique analysis of the human condition, using herself as base of the study in a way that draws in listeners to feel parts of themselves in the music. Her music is nothing short of confronting in a comforting way; completely and utterly honest. With ‘Punisher’, I see myself in her music more than ever. And I hope you do too.


With thanks to Secretly Group + Inertia Music

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