Phoebe Bridgers is a self-confessed lover of sad songs, but the Californian musician has opted to (marginally) dial down the despair for her second album Punisher. The album is a masterful documentation of regret, recovery, but crucially of growth, as oppose to the gloom which lingers throughout her delicate debut, Stranger in the Alps.
The topic of healing is also visualised in her cover art. She is no longer a ghost in the mountains, but a skeleton in the desert. Still isolated, and not entirely whole, but a sure step closer to feeling human.
“The doctor put her hands over my liver. She told me my resentment’s getting smaller,” sings Bridgers in the haunting lead single, ‘Garden Song’. The track which is centred around this theme of growth, is scattered with personal details from her hometown. She sings about the Californian fires, the Pasadena Rose Parade, and The Huntington Library, but these intertwine seamlessly with universal references to maturity, sexual discovery, and digital dependency.
Bridgers’ has aced this ability to balance the personal with the universal throughout the album. She will often deviate from an inclusive topic with some sharp witticism or detail which only a select few will immediately understand. It is often as though you are listening to her through a stream of consciousnesses.
‘Kyoto’, her paciest track to date, is written almost entirely in this conversational manner. Bridgers’ uses this writing style and the speedier tempo to almost distract you from a serious discussion. She diverts with mundane remarks about the price of payphones and her band going to the arcade, before addressing the difficult topic of forgiving her father’s poor parenting. “I don’t forgive you. But please don’t hold me to it,” she sings in the chorus.
While she ponders her forgiving nature in ‘Kyoto’, Bridgers’ is ultimately unforgiving to herself in the title track. ‘Punisher’ (a term used to describe an overly enthusiastic fan) is an otherworldly tribute to Bridgers’ idol, the melancholy folk singer Elliott Smith who died in 2003. She questions how she would react if she met him today. “We never met. It’s for the best,” she ultimately concludes.
Putting aside this self doubt, if Elliott Smith were alive today, Bridgers’ would probably have formed a side project with him by now. In just over three years she has already formed two other groups: Better Oblivion Community Centre with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst, and boygenius, with Julian Baker and Lucy Dracus. All her collaborators feature at different stages throughout Punisher.
Her boygenius band mates join her on ‘Graceland Too’, a track which details an MDMA trip. Sonically it is the most similar to Stranger in the Alps, featuring traditional folk accompaniments including a fiddle and banjo.
Punisher ends on the blistering ‘I Know The End’ which brings together all the collaborators from the album for an outro parade of epic proportions. The near-six-minute track finishes with Bridgers reenacting a crowd cheering for ten seconds. A gloriously goofy way to end a track about an apocalyptic road trip.
Full of intelligent allegory and clever quips, Punisher, is an all-encompassing record that can make you laugh and cry within a single track. It is probably best that I never meet Phoebe Bridgers, because I would be one hell of a punisher talking about this album.