Album Review: Phoebe Bridgers - 'Punisher'

Uplifting, funny and devastating by parts, Punisher is the work of an artist who can demolish her listener with almost comic ease. Louis Griffin reviews the sophomore record from indie-folk monolith Phoebe Bridgers.

Phoebe Bridgers is back. Well, that’s actually a little disingenuous – I’m not sure she ever left. The much-fêted singer-songwriter has been rather busy over the last few years. Not content with 2017’s Stranger In The Alps, a debut that found itself no small amount of critical acclaim, she went on to record two further projects whilst recording her sophomore album. 2018’s boygenius found her teaming up with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, while 2019’s Better Oblivion Community Centre, recorded alongside Conor Oberst, left Bridgers as one of the most talked-about figures in indie-folk today.

Punisher is a dense second record, both lyrically and sonically. Its soundscape is oppressively heavy in places, disquietingly calm in others, but throughout retains the intimacy of her debut. You feel that Bridgers is sharing secrets, laying her life bare before you. We relive in bitter detail her breakup with her ex (Marshall Vore, the drummer in her band) on ICU, her friend’s committal to a mental ward on Graceland Too, and her longing to believe in something, anything, greater than herself on Chinese Satellite.

Punisher is a mature, considered second album…Bridgers has travelled an awful lot of distance since 2017, and it really shows

This album feels more communal than Stranger In The Alps, and not just because of the intimate stories of her relationships. There’s an entire village’s worth of collaborators and features – most of the members of cult-icons Bright Eyes turn up on one track or another, along with all her boygenius bandmates – and this feels particularly evident on closer I Know The End, a track which finishes with an extended outro, with every collaborator on the album singing, and then screaming, together. It’s a really touching moment, although in classic Bridgers style, it doesn’t last. Their vocals fade away, and we’re left with Phoebe’s strained, unsettling breathing.

Bridgers has built on her sound in a really pleasing way with this record. She’s taken notes from all the people she’s worked with along the way, and the result is a nominally folk album, that actually has much more full and varied production than that label would imply. The first track we hear is opening instrumental DVD Menu, which, satisfyingly enough, samples the last track of her debut album, You Missed My Heart.

The first track proper then, Garden Song, is based around a muted, muffled guitar loop at its centre, and a glitchy, crackling synthesiser – indeed, some of the guitars on this record are so soft and warped that they could quite easily be mistaken for synthesizers. It’s classic Bridgers fare, the devastation is in the details. She tells the listener of the Pasadena Rose Parade in her hometown (“they’re gluing roses on a flatbed / you should see it, I mean thousands”), and recounts the fire that destroyed her childhood home. But, despite this, it’s actually one of the most upbeat tracks Bridgers has recorded – indeed, many of the songs here are nearly cheerful. It’s followed by Kyoto, which finds Phoebe dissociating in Japan; the song hinges on having everything you want, but feeling like you’re still not experiencing it. And yet, it’s still a soaring, beautiful indie ballad.

The album has a few central themes, one of which is the titular Punisher. A punisher is, by Bridgers’ definition, someone who is unaware that they are draining the person they’re talking to. As she puts it, “Say you’re at Thanksgiving with your wife’s family and she’s got an older relative who is anti-vax or just read some conspiracy theory article and, even if they’re sweet, they’re just talking to you and they don’t realise that your eyes are glazed over and you’re trying to escape: That’s a punisher.” The song also touches on Phoebe’s hero, Elliott Smith. His influence can be found all over this record, and indeed any of her work. This track finds her worrying that, if she had met him, she would have been a punisher herself. “I guess if Elliott was alive - especially because we would have lived next to each other - it’s like 1000% I would have met him and I would have not known what the fuck I was talking about, and I would have cornered him at Silverlake Lounge.”

There are several other recurring touchstones. There’s often a feeling of innocence, and child-like naivety in Bridgers’ work, and that manifests itself here as references to Disney works. Savior Complex has a soundscape that sounds like a warped Disney track, and the title track mentions Snow White in the verses, while the chorus interpolates the melody of Once Upon A Dream. In a similar vein, closing track I Know The End has a raft of nods to The Wizard Of Oz: “three clicks and I’m home [..] there’s no place like my room”. There’s also a canny renaming – track nine, ICU, had to be retitled I See You for its single release, due to the unfortunate connotations COVID-19 brought to that title. This track also has perhaps the most stunning line of the album, “If you’re a work of art / I’m standing too close / I can see the brushstrokes”.

'Its soundscape is oppressively heavy in places, disquietingly calm in others, but throughout retains the intimacy of her debut'

Punisher is a mature, considered second album. That’s not to say that Phoebe Bridgers’ debut was immature in any way; rather that Bridgers has travelled an awful lot of distance since 2017, and it really shows. The lyrics are knotty and self-referential. Even after repeated listens, one can spot more references than could possibly be mentioned. At its core, the record deals with Bridgers’ relationships – her friendship, family and romance – and the power dynamics therein. The most accomplished moment for me on the album, though, is the ending. Uplifting, funny and devastating by parts, it’s the work of an artist who can demolish her listener with almost comic ease. Punisher will, indeed, punish you – but it is so, so worth it.