Lockdown has proven to be the perfect time to explore some new music and expand our musical catalogue even further, and what better album to get stuck into than Phoebe Bridgers’ highly anticipated second record Punisher? Get the tissues ready, this one’s a tear jerker.
Although Bridgers’ last record Stranger in the Alps, a blinding success, was released in 2017, she’s managed to keep busy over the past couple of years, collaborating with other equally talented artists such as Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker in the enchanting supergroup boygenius, as well as a surprise new project Better Oblivion Community Center with Conor Obest (Bright Eyes). On co-producing Punisher with Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, who also produced Stranger In The Alps: “I feel like the most important thing that happened to me is meeting Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, who produced my first album, ” she says. “Going back and making a record with the same people has been so insanely cool. I feel like I totally dodged a bullet meeting them and making a record that I really loved, and now I really love Punisher. If people hate it, I’m not scared.”
After ominous instrumental opener ‘DVD Menu’ sets the tone for what’s to come, we’re taken straight to ‘Garden Song’, the first single released off this album, with it’s lo-fi, tape-warped guitars contrasting with her airy, whispery voice, so intimate you can almost feel her breathing down your neck. ‘Garden Song’ includes harmonies from her tour manager Jeroen Vrijhoef, as well as a formidable team of guests who appear throughout the album including Baker, Dacus, Hutson and Oberst as well as Nathaniel Walcott (of Bright Eyes), Nick Zinner (of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Jenny Lee Lindberg (of Warpaint), Blake Mills and Jim Keltner.
This leads us to one of Bridgers’ most upbeat tracks ‘Kyoto’, which was also released as a single earlier this year, though through the catchy riffs from the bright harmonies of the brass section, the punchiness of the drums and the entire peppy facade lies a heavier subject which addresses alcoholism and disassociation. Bridgers says: “I love my life, my real actual dreams came true, but sometimes when I feel depressed, I also feel really guilty. That song is about me being in Japan for the first time, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go, playing my music for people who really want to hear it, and feeling…bad.”
There’s a slight air of tension and ambiguity to ‘Halloween’ as it begins – the entire track is bathed in a pool of alluring textures with its deep staccato strings, eliciting a sense of uncertainty, but as soon as Bridgers starts singing she wraps her familiar, reassuring arms around you with her velvety voice, bare against a backdrop of swirling and bubbling textures, and it’s just blissful to listen to. The first thing that struck me within the first couple of seconds of ‘Savior Complex’ was how much I was reminded of Elliott Smith; the chords used, the rhythm and the pace reflected his signature sound, but again, as soon as Bridgers’ voice comes in, the track becomes entirely her own, and Elliott Smith’s sound dwindles into a mere whisper in this captivating lullaby. The lyrics paint a picture of someone carrying a lot of weight in a relationship, the desperation of wanting to share their lover’s pain and to look after them, regardless of how draining it might be, “Baby you’re a vampire, you want blood and I promised, I’m a bad liar with a savior complex” sings Bridgers.
‘I See You’, originally ‘ICU’, Bridgers’ latest single, is an example of how close to the bone her songs are, seeing as this track was written with her ex boyfriend and drummer of her band Marshall Vore about their break-up. The fact that she is able to co-write something so intimate with her ex lover exhibits exactly how profound and intricate their relationship was; the ability to sit there and dig deep into each other and drag out all of their pain and vulnerability, exposing it all to each other and using it to create something so personal and beautiful is something to be immensely envious of.
The album comes to a climactic, devastating finish with ‘I Know The End’, an uphill crescendo of emotions, starting with a delicate, transparent melody and arrangement, which cascades into its poignant outro, building upon itself over each cycle like a storm brewing over a roaring sea, concluding with thrashing cymbals, blaring horns and Bridgers screaming at the top of her lungs, the perfect ending to a stunning album.
Fans of ‘Smoke Signals’ will be extremely pleased to know that Phoebe has retained her authenticity, and the familiarity of her sound is welcomed with open arms, though this time with a slightly more wistful edge. Writing an album this deeply personal can be a challenge, especially when you potentially risk re-traumatising yourself over your past selves and what they went through, but Bridgers has demonstrated that she doesn’t just write love songs, she writes about everything that surrounds love, the darkness that comes with it, the pain it can evoke and the price you have to pay to have it.