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Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher – Music for the 21st Century

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Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher – Music for the 21st Century

I first heard Phoebe Bridgers on my Dad’s record player a few years ago. He had her first album, Stranger in the Alps, on vinyl, and after the first minute of the opening track Smoke Signals, I knew I was going to be listening to Phoebe Bridgers for a long time. And whilst her first record was an amazingly emotional collection of neo-Americana, Punisher takes a dramatically different turn in favour of a more centralised narrative – similar to her 2019 collaboration with Connor Oberst, Better Oblivion Community Centre. Punisher is a slice of Phoebe’s life: a window into the world of a young modern American, and it’s as beautiful as it is fascinating.

The two teaser tracks that came out in the months prior to Punisher’s releasewere Garden Song and Kyoto, both of which end up as tracks 1 and 2 on the full length LP (I count the instrumental opener, DVD Intro, as just that). Together the two songs encapsulate what Phoebe is known for: Garden Song is an atmospheric collection of vignettes, and Kyoto an upbeat number ablaze with lively horns, and it’s in this pairing that we’re introduced to some of the narrative strands of Punisher. Phoebe’s storytelling is often intentionally vague and idiosyncratic, with moments of niche references accompanied by what feel like universally relatable truths. Her lyrics are cryptic, and though they may be intensely personal, I think there’s a lot to learn from these songs about the way that she sees the world. With that in mind, both Garden Song and Kyoto set the tone for Punisher’s major theme, that being the effect that modern life has had on the way that she sees the world. “When I grow up, I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life,” she sings on Garden Song, later echoed in the humorous opening lines of Kyoto “day off in Kyoto, I got bored at the temple, looked around in the 7/11”.

We get more of these sentiments in the dreamy, reverb-soaked title track Punisher. As confirmed by Phoebe in a New Yorker piece, this song is about/directed to the late singer-songwriter Elliot Smith. After having “gone to the store for nothing”, Phoebe remarks on the fact that she only lives on the east side of LA because “the drug stores are open all night” – they’re a place that she can “hide in plain side”, nostalgic for a pre-millennium America that she never got to live in. It’s here that the album’s title is made clear: in musician lingo, a ‘punisher’ is someone who obsesses over an artist to the point that it’s all they can talk about. Phoebe thinks of herself in this way: “I can open my mouth and forget how to talk… wouldn’t know where to start, wouldn’t know when to stop”. Sure, she may just really love Elliot Smith. But I think she’s doing something that we’ve all been guilty of at some point: immersing herself in obsessive behaviour in an attempt to hide from the outside world.

But when she does try to see this world, she finds it masked by modernity. On Chinese Satellite, Phoebe “took a tour to see the stars”, but, presumably due to LA’s light pollution, “they weren’t out tonight”. The bright lights she saw instead were technological, and in the absence of a shooting star, she “wished on a Chinese satellite”. This saddening juxtaposition between the natural and the technological is mirrored through the song’s production as a gorgeously clean string section floats on a thick bed of synth bass. Phoebe is starting to see the world for what it has become – a dystopia that she doesn’t want to be a part of. She knows this isn’t the place that she belongs: “I want to believe… I’ll see a tractor beam coming to take me”.

The next few tracks deviate from the themes I’ve spoken about, severing themselves from the record’s main theme and opting for a more traditional lovey vibe. Sadly, this means that the album slows down a lot and, by Moon Song, loses a lot of the pace that it has been up. That pace is resumed, however, on Graceland Too. Phoebe employs arpeggiated guitars, a banjo, and a fiddle to conjure a country-inspired instrumental that harks back to a genre of music emblematic of bygone America. It’s speculated on the Phoebe Bridgers subreddit that I haunt that Graceland Too is written about/from the perspective of Julien Baker, a close friend of Phoebe Bridgers’ and a member of the 2018 collaboration boy genius (which also includes Lucy Dacus). In her solo endeavours, Julien sings more explicitly about the difficulties associated with modern life and relationships, openly remarking upon inertia, mental illness, and feelings of extreme detachment from the world around her (her songs Rejoice and Shadowboxing are great examples of this). Back on Graceland Too, Phoebe’s evocation of Julien stays away from the lights of the big city, instead choosing to drive through Memphis to find a tiny tourist house dedicated to Elvis Presley. It’s a very lonely song, but the outro features all three members of boy genius singing in harmony about their dedication to one another, and it’s here that we get the record’s purest moment of inter-personal connection.

This makes the album’s final track, I Know the End, all the more impactful. The first half of the song sounds like a classic Stranger in the Alps-era Phoebe Bridgers cut with its distant, reverbed electric guitar and soft-sung lyrics about a dysfunctional relationship. But whereas Stranger in the Alps was built around these kinds of moments – these minor interactions in desolate settings, Punisher focusses on trying to move on from that era of Phoebe’s life (for better or worse). This is encapsulated in I Know the End’s beat-switch halfway through the track. Phoebe leaves the grim setting of the first half and begins “driving out into the sun”, setting out on a surreal journey through America as she passes “a slaughterhouse, an outlet mall, slot machines, fear of god” on her way to “find a new place to be from”. It’s then, amidst cries that “the end is near”, that the song melts into its third act: an apocalyptic symphony of horns, percussion, distorted guitars, and screaming. It’s an incredibly surprising place to go when you first hear it, and it’s hard to pin down just what this ending is meant to represent. Perhaps it’s the hell that these God-fearing Americans are afraid of; perhaps it’s the far-reaching void of space that she looked up to on Chinese Satellites; or perhaps it’s just the inner-machinations of Phoebe’s psyche (it’s her voice screaming after all).

I Know the End is a phenomenally impactful ending to an album that seems to be reaching out of the everyday and into the dream-like unknown. Punisher’s outro arrives at the conclusion that modernity may be cluttered and ugly, but at least it provides us with structure, a structure that Phoebe appears to escape in the album’s chaotic, cacophonous ending. You can really feel that Phoebe is living in the wake of the success of Stranger in the Alps – like many of us, she’s unsure about her place in the world, confused about how to be a thinking, feeling person in a society obsessed with consumerism and progress. But despite this, she’s determined to move forward and develop as both an artist and a person, and I think that Punisher is a complex album that serves as a wildly successful ‘next step’ in Phoebe Bridgers’ career as a musician.

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