LA native Phoebe Bridgers has hit us with yet another heart-wrenchingly witty project. Punisher, released June 18th of this year, takes a trip into a new world of Bridgers’ creation. This universe she created is full of uplifting self-deprecation and artistic meta-analysis of our most gripping questions as humans, all wrapped up in the casual and pragmatic delivery characteristic of her work.
The build-up to Punisher is preceded by her debut album Stranger in the Alps, along with her collaborations in the form of Boy Genius (comprised of Julian Baker, Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus) and Better Oblivion Community Center (a duo of Bridgers and Conor Oberst). Each of these projects has received acclaim and led us on a journey through her growth in the industry. I was introduced to Phoebe shortly after Stranger in the Alps debuted, and she has managed to keep my attention through the years. Her writing was unlike anything I’d heard before, and my ears stayed keen awaiting her next solo project.
Stranger’s energy was a fantastic introduction to Bridgers, but this new album feels much more personal. With the release of three consecutive singles leading up to the album drop, we got to see how well rounded this project was going to be. Garden Song was released first, and instantly reminded me of one of the singles off Stranger in the Alps, titled Smoke Signals. It has the same understated vocal with a droning instrumental backing. This new song paints a picture of Phoebe looking back at her life, where she is now, how she’s moving forward and how she, to quote the song, “has everything she wanted.” In my opinion, this references the success of Strangers and her following work with Conor Oberst, who she has long admired. The next two singles, Kyoto and ICU, showcase a different side of her musicality, much akin to Motion Sickness from her first album. These two songs are equally intimate. They have the same upbeat, almost punk rock meets Joni Mitchell feel of Motion Sickness. Kyoto is said to describe her relationship with her father and ICU, or I See You on the album version, is a co-written dive into her past relationship with current friend and drummer Marshall Vore. All three of these singles created a foundation for the exploration she sets forth in the full album, but I don’t think anyone truly knew what was coming.
The title track Punisher is the fourth track and sets the scene of this almost alternate-reality soundscape of the rest of the album. She narrates this new place where she finds herself, describing it in metaphor using Disney fairy-tales and Scientology references. She talks about the subject of this song, someone she deems a little nicer than she is. She uses this as a moment to discuss her resting bitch face and how sweet this person is to the “trust funds and punishers.”
As the album moves on, Phoebe dissects a few relationships, and we land on Chinese Satellite in track 6. This song is a catalyst and starts to unravel these existential questions Phoebe has been hinting to. The song centers around her innate lack of spirituality and how she wishes she thought differently. The chorus of this song changes each time it shows up, and she rounds out the track saying, “I want to believe/that if I go outside/I’ll see a tractor beam/coming to take me to where I’m from/I want to go home.” This song brings in the whole project’s tone and solidifies it, wrapping up intentionally with I Know The End.
There are a few more metaphors Bridgers uses to discuss what seems to be an undertone of rejection and the afterlife. One of my personal favorites is her “dog with a bird in its teeth” line. She uses this imagery twice, once in Moon Song, and again in I Know The End. Moon Song is where she develops this comparison of herself to the dog, insinuating that despite her efforts, she is not the kind of person the subject wants. In the song Graceland Too, which is a beautiful stand-out on the record in my opinion, she cultivates this bluegrass sound and references The King. The second chorus brings us this line: So she picks a direction/it’s ninety in Memphis/Turns up the music so thoughts don’t intrude/Predictably winds up thinking of Elvis/And wonders if he believes songs could come true/I’m asking for it if they do.
Upon my first listen to this record, I immediately felt the immense growth and self-analysis Phoebe has moved through since 2017’s Strangers. Her tone is still the same, transforming somewhat morbid lyrics and making them feel light and feathery, but there is a deeper grit to Punisher that I think we were all waiting for. She has a talent for making us all feel like the weirdness inside us is a little more ordinary. Bridgers is quickly becoming a household name, and I remember when her Instagram followers were under 50,000. Now they are fast approaching 500,000. An endorsement from John Mayer via Twitter in 2019 called her exposure “the arrival of a giant.”
I think it is safe to say the giant has arrived, and she brings us Punisher.