By Olivia Moody
Upon the release of her 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps, Phoebe Bridgers amassed a cult following. Punisher is her second solo release, a much-anticipated piece of work full of the evocative and startlingly honest song-writing that she has come to be recognised for.
Seemingly an odd choice, Bridgers’ opens her sophomore album with ‘DVD Menu,’ a short instrumental that combines an array of string instruments to produce a feeling of melancholy. This opening sets the tone for the record: mellow and haunting, it establishes an emphatic eeriness, an atmosphere maintained with precision through Bridgers’ lyrics in the songs that follow.
Bridgers released ‘Garden Song,’ Punisher’s lead single, in February of this year; bridging the gap between this album and her debut whilst conveying her development as a solo artist, ‘Garden Song’ is among the strongest tracks on Punisher. Telling of a dreamlike romance, it puts forth a narrative of life and death, of fantasy and fear, and is reminiscent of potential loves addressed in older songs such as ‘Georgia’ and ‘Killer.’ Hinting at arson and murder, it’s careful finger-picked guitar arrangement is hypnotic, weaving together an innocent beauty and subtle darkness to create a smooth, controlled track.
The pace changes with ‘Kyoto,’ Punisher’s second single. Though guitar remains central, the introduction of wind instruments and the use of a heavy, maintained drum produces a tone of confrontation, this perhaps influenced by her brooding collaborative project Better Oblivion Community Centre with Conor Oberst, who provides backing vocals intermittently across Punisher. Though the lyrics do address what might be considered mundane and uninteresting – she sings of payphones and missed birthdays – the careful crafting of her words means that Bridgers transforms the everyday into distant, almost surreal ideas. This means that, although she is ultimately singing of a strained relationship with her father, a sense of alienation is present: Bridgers’ song-writing is precise and compact, unafraid and direct.
The direct nature of Bridgers’ lyrics provides them with a bluntness, but they lack an ignorance. ‘ICU’ is saturated with universal truths and frustrations, with Bridgers commenting, “it’s amazing to me how much you can say/when you don’t know what you’re talking about.” Such an observation holds relevance in current cultural and political contexts, displaying Bridgers’ self-awareness and her significance as an artist.
A serial collaborator, Bridgers worked with her boygenius bandmates Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker on ‘Graceland Too.’ Though not the first to write of Graceland – Paul Simon immortalised the location with his 1986 album, for example – Bridgers is arguably the first to write of a solo road trip that finishes at the estate. A song of independence, it tells of a woman’s return to the outside world and her realisation that “she can do anything she wants to do”: unlike much of Bridgers’ other work, ‘Graceland Too’ is a delicate song of daunting hope, and one of the strongest solo tracks she has produced.
Punisher closes with a notion of existentialism: Bridgers climactically asserts around the middle mark of ‘I Know The End,’ the album’s final and longest song, that “the end is near.” Here, it becomes clear why Bridgers has structured Punisher as she has. Decisive, it makes way for a return to reality on an album that otherwise suspends feelings of actuality. ‘I Know the End,’ and thus Punisher as an entity, concludes with a cacophony of instruments and layered vocals, depicting an eruption of the emotions that Bridgers has crafted over the duration of the album.
Though Bridgers had much to live up to following Stranger in the Alps, Punisher is a compelling sophomore album. Honest and haunting, it solidifies Bridgers’ status as a skilful song-writer and embodies all that is exciting within the realm of folk- and indie-rock.
Image: David Lee via Wikimedia Commons