In Review: Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher

The awaited return of Phoebe Bridgers both reflects and remedies the state of the times.
Posted: 18 June 2020 Words: John Bell

In the last, quiet moments of Punisher before its closing climax, Phoebe Bridgers makes a promise to herself. “When I get back I’ll lay around / Then I’ll get up and lay back down / Romanticise a quiet life / There’s no place like my room”. 

Though there's no way that Bridgers could have foreseen the pertinence that would swathe these and other such lines on her awaited second album in irony, the 25-year-old has always seemed to hold her finger on the pulse. Her 2017 breakthrough debut Stranger in the Alps and the snowballing success that followed made the LA-based artist a kind of spokesperson for the millenial/Gen Z cross section, with her wry nihilism and candid expressions of relationships – sober and unflattering at one moment and elevated in romanticism the next. 

But three years on, the world is a different and more confused place, and once again Bridgers has produced a record that reflects and remedies it. 

In her own wordbook, a ‘punisher’ is “Someone who doesn’t know when to stop talking,” as she explained recently in an interview with i-D Magazine. “It’s my nightmare. I’d way rather be judged for being a bitch or shy or any other personality trait than for overstaying my welcome.”  

But for someone whose biggest anxiety is overstepping the social mark, Bridgers spends much of Punisher retreating from the moment. On the deceptively chirpy ‘Kyoto’, we find Bridgers and her band discovering the arcades and bullet trains of Japan, inspired by their first visit in early 2019. And yet, she admits, “I wanted to see the world / Then I flew over the ocean / And I changed my mind”. 

The homesickness of Punisher feels less of a yearning for a physical sanctuary – “I hate living by the hospital,” she sings on the foggy, finger-picked ‘Halloween’, “The sirens go all night” –  and more for the intangible memory of home and wholeness. Bridgers is all-too aware of its transience, as on the thumping ‘I See You’, where we find her “Laying down on the lawn / Tired of trying to get in the house / I’m thinking out loud / I’ve been playing dead my whole life.”

If the artist’s personal understanding of home has a ghostlike quality, then so too does the perception of her own image. Bridgers has been quite vocal on her experience of disassociation, no doubt worsened by increasing success and the pressure to be happy that presumably comes with it, and here too we find her “Running in circles / Trying to be myself”. Just as the cover of Stranger in the Alps depicted a young Bridgers hidden in a handmade ghost costume, here the 25-year-old dons a similarly childlike skeleton outfit; forgetting for a second any slight nod to the Marvel vigilante of the same name, there’s a clear continuation of this sentiment. 

It’s unsurprising, then, that just as she did with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus with Boygenius and with Bright EyesConor Oberst with Better Oblivion Community Centre, Bridgers has again surrounded herself with a strong unit of friends and collaborators to help ground herself and mould her vision. Baker, Dacus and Oberst all feature on Punisher, along with her faithful band including guitarists Christian Lee Hutson and Harrison Whitford and drummer Marshal Vore. There’s even appearances from Blake Mills and Warpaint’s Jenny Lee Lindberg, not to mention legendary session drummer Jim Keltner, who has played with Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, most of The Beatles and everyone in between. But whether it’s the deep stirring vocals of tour manager Jeroen Vrijhoef on lead single ‘Garden Song’, or the satiny string arrangements from Rob Moose on the timelessly composed ‘Saviour Complex’, each addition works effectively to adorn Bridgers' own songwriting. 

For all of the shadows that haunt and vignette much of the record, there are moments of relief and empowerment. Bright-eyed and banjo-lead ‘Graceland Too’ feels effortlessly liberating, like walking barefoot onto dewy grass after a storm: ‘Yelled down the hall but nobody answered / So she walked outside without an excuse / She can do anything she wants to / She can do whatever she wants to do.’ In contrast, closing track ‘I Know The End’ is freeing in its skidding u-turn to face chaos head on. Like sporting a pair of sunglasses from John Carpenter’s 1988 sci-fi They Live, pushing the pedal to metal and zooming down the highway, ‘Windows down scream along / To some America First country rap song’, Bridgers engulfs the slaughterhouses, slot machines, government drones and alien spaceships like the screaming cacophony that builds behind her. 

In both its bold and understated acceptance of chaos, Punisher is a perfect product of its time. 

Punisher is out now on Dead Oceans.

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