The Lowdown: When Phoebe Bridgers released her tremendous debut album, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps, the impact was immediately felt. The Los Angeles-based artist, known best at the time for small roles in Apple commercials (including a supercut of different musicians playing The Pixies’ “Gigantic”), had arrived as one of the most assured, confident indie rock artists out there. In a pivot that displayed her versatility, she followed that up with a pair of collaborative records, first with the indie-rock supergroup boygenius, featuring contemporaries Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, and then with a freewheeling, relaxed album alongside frequent collaborator Conor Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center. With one-off collaborations with Fiona Apple, The National’s Matt Berninger, and The 1975’s Matty Healy, Bridgers has emerged as a torchbearer for indie rock in 2020.
Throughout each of these projects, Bridgers continued to develop her signature style, featuring wry storytelling full of rich characters in bracing situations, always knowing the right turn of phrase. For instance, on a song like “Funeral”, a standout from Stranger in the Alps, she’s preparing to sing at the funeral of an acquaintance close to her own age and navigates the delicate balance of reconciling a personal existential crisis with the grief of the deceased’s family. A little less than three years since her debut, Bridgers has returned with Punisher, a fantastic record that’s deeper, richer, and hazier than anything she has made before. An album anchored by restraint, full of unexpected flourishes of light, Punisher puts Bridgers’ growth front and center.
The Good: Bridgers is a master of quiet devastation, using lines that would often stop a song dead in its tracks before quickly moving on. “Halloween”, a song about wearing masks for other people, both figuratively and literally, opens with the lyric “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.” The uber-specific details and morbid self-deprecation are just two of the many touches that make her songs so memorable. On single “Kyoto”, based on her relationship with her estranged father, over an upbeat tempo she sings, “You called on his birthday/ You were off by like 10 days/ But you get a few points for trying,” distilling a lifetime of resentment and resigned acceptance into a single line. On stunning album centerpiece “Chinese Satellite”, Bridgers sings about her and a friend fighting with a group of evangelical protesters, with the friend stating that they don’t believe in an afterlife. As the strings swell behind her, Bridgers sings, “You know I’d stand on a corner, embarrassed with a picket sign/ If it meant I could see you when I died.” It’s a striking example of the way Bridgers uses her stories to gutting effect.
Taking from each of her previous projects, Bridgers expands her musical palette throughout Punisher. There’s the way that the rubber bridge guitar of “Garden Song” makes it sound like you’re listening to it with your head underwater, how the booming horns on “Kyoto” recall the urgency of a Neutral Milk Hotel song, or how the fiddle and organ on “Graceland Too”, combined with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus’ backing harmonies, make the track feel like a long-lost Dixie Chicks song. A singular crushing moment comes on the bridge of standout “Chinese Satellite”, where everything cuts out except for the strings and Bridgers’ voice as she pleads for a sign from the afterlife before the drums and guitars come crashing in. By the time the album concludes with the epic “I Know the End” — where a gang chorus of vocals including Baker, Dacus, Oberst, Tomberlin, and Christian Lee Hutson back her up as the instruments rise to Godspeed You! Black Emperor levels of catharsis with a raucous Nick Zinner guitar solo — it’s apparent how ambitious Bridgers’ vision has become.
Listening to Punisher is getting to spend 40 minutes in the world of one of our most accomplished storytellers, getting lost in her world of kind souls fumbling in the dark for a sense of connection. From the girl in “Graceland Too” who runs away from home while thinking of Elvis to the dog who brings its owner a dead bird as an offering, Bridgers creates a world of misguided misfits who can’t help getting in their own way. As our guide and narrator, she offers ordinary scenes that worm into our psyche, whether it’s “eating a sleeve of saltines on my floor” in “Graceland Too” or driving to an unknown destination with the windows down, screaming along “to some America First rap country song” on “I Know the End”. Punisher is filled with moments like this, the kind that pop into your head after weeks or months because they are so vivid and rich with detail.
The Bad: Bridgers shines when delving beyond the literal — filled with vampires and dreams of spaceships coming to take us away — with an eye for the metaphysical that would make Jeff Mangum or Isaac Brock proud. It’s an album of twisted dream-logic and bewildering moments that disarm you at first before leaving a lasting impact. It’s not a difficult album by any means, but a bold step forward that may surprise those who were hoping for some of the more straightforward imagery of her earlier work. If anything, the album’s inscrutability is what makes it more inviting, drawing you in to explore her world and become lost in it. Punisher finds Bridgers tapping into the universal feelings of isolation and creeping dread in a way that never relies on platitudes or catchphrases. It’s no accident that one of the most upbeat moments is when on “I See You”, Bridgers sings: “I get this feeling whenever I feel good it will be the last time.” As she plays herself off on the road-weary, stream-of-consciousness drive in the masterful “I Know the End”, the album concludes in a rapturous fashion as all the pent-up emotions and tension erupt into a rare earned catharsis.
The Verdict: Punisher beams with a restless energy and twisted dream logic that erupts into striking moments of clarity in a way reminiscent of The National’s Boxer. Similar to how that band followed up on their early promise with a grand statement that established them as a singular voice in the genre, this album does the same for Bridgers. Punisher is a dazzling record, one filled with sadness but not overwhelmingly so, full of moments that sting the first time you hear them but burrow deeper into the soul with each listen. There’s a memeification of glamorizing sad songs that you can cry along to that has popped up in recent years in comment sections and tweets, and hearing a record that transcends that by being as deep and rich as Punisher is truly heartening. It’s no surprise that beloved artists like Apple, Oberst, and Berninger wanted to work with Bridgers, and Punisher finds her taking her place alongside them.
Essential Tracks: “Garden Song”, “Chinese Satellite”, and “Kyoto”