If there is one thing that is obvious after listening to any Phoebe Bridgers song, it is this: she always wears her heart on her sleeve. Her authenticity and intimate lyricism won her 2017 debut album “Stranger in the Alps” critical acclaim before the then-23-year-old singer-songwriter leaned into that momentum for two more stellar collaborations in 2018. First, she joined the super trio Boygenius with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus– the trio released a widely applauded eponymous EP, followed quickly by the pleasantly surprising formation of Better Community Oblivion Center with Connor Oberst. Needless to say, Bridgers, now 25, has found herself on a bit of a hot streak, one she extends with her stellar sophomore LP, “Punisher”.
Bridgers crafts “Punisher” as an often somber dreamscape, one that pulls you in slowly, but never lets you go. The haunting and heavy tones of the intro blend seamlessly into the muted finger plucking of “Garden Song”, a track that Bridgers herself says is about manifesting: the good and the bad. “Everything is growing in our garden/you don’t have to know that its haunted” she sings delicately during the songs final chorus, “The doctor put her hands over my liver/she told me my resentment is getting smaller”. Bridgers paints a nuanced picture of herself in this moment. She struggles to define herself and desires to grow as a person despite the ugliness of her past and the expectations of her younger self. It is a moment, like many on the album, which is expressed in such a genuine way that puts us right in the room with her, as if she were confiding in us.
Even during the albums rare up-tempo moments, such as the song “Kyoto”, the intimacy is not lost. Bridgers spins a tale of boredom while on tour in Japan over a fun, folky track with an intoxicating horn section before effortlessly pivoting to genuine musings about her family and father. “And stare at the chem trails with my little brother/he said you called on his birthday/you were off by like ten days/you get a few points for trying” she sings in a touching and sad moment that doesn’t feel overtly bitter. It is one of the many tender moments on the record, one that has me tearful and nostalgic while my hips can’t help but sway side to side.
Sonically the record doesn’t break new ground, but for the most part, that’s okay. The songs aren’t overwrought with gimmicky and eclectic sounds and instead capture and compliment the moodiness of Bridgers’s songwriting. There are the aforementioned horns, and powerful string accompaniments on tracks such as “Punisher” and “Chinese Satellite”, but for the most part the focus is on Phoebe and the spacey soundscape she creates. There are times, however, when “Punisher” can be a little too dreamy. Tracks like “Moonsong”, while deeply personal, suffer from sleepy instrumentation that instead of letting the listener sink deeper into Bridgers’s world put them straight to bed.
Perhaps the most captivating song on the entire record is its triumphant conclusion, “I Know The End”. The son showcases the best of Bridgers’s writing ability as she weaves pop culture references with vivid apocalyptic imagery. We begin the song on Bridgers’s phone and end with bolts of lightning striking the earth as alien spaceships descend from space, which mirrors the slow-paced beginning of the track that evolves into an epic and satisfying conclusion. It truly feels like the culmination of all the mental and musical territory the album explored.
“Punisher” is Bridgers’s finest record to date. Her songwriting is at its tightest and lyricism at its cleverest, cementing her status as one of the hottest and highly sought after artists in indie scene right now. (4/5)
Key tracks: “Garden Song”, “Kyoto”, “I Know The End”, “Punisher”, “Halloween”