Phoebe Bridgers is the poetic and sarcastic indie folk musician whose songwriting abilities have garnered comparisons to the likes of Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan. Her debut album “Stranger in the Alps” was dubbed “an emo-folk masterpiece” by Rolling Stone in 2018, and her sophomore album “Punisher” is an instant bleak and fatalistic classic.
“Punisher” was originally slated to be released on June 19, but Bridgers decided to put it out a day early, stating on her Instagram that she wouldn’t be postponing the release. With the fragile state of the world with COVID-19 and the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, having music and art as a release is incredibly necessary, and this album is a smorgasbord of sorrowful, sarcastic tunes with Bridgers attempting to make sense of the dark future that it feels like this generation is headed towards.
Bridgers’ enlists the help of frequent collaborators and bandmates from side projects on this album including Conor Oberst of Better Oblivion Community Center, and Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker of boygenius. Bridgers’ songwriting on this record was influenced lyrically by Joan Didion, and sonically by Elliott Smith and Jackson Browne. The sound on the album conjures up visceral pangs with lo-fi production on tracks like “Garden Song,” and heavy instrumentation on the track “Kyoto,” complete with mellotron, autoharp, twelve-string guitars and synthesizers.
Bridgers’ dejected and cynical lyrical overtones are the most transparent on dystopian folk-pop tracks like “Halloween” a song about an ill-fated romance that closes out with a duet between Bridgers’ and Conor Oberst repeating the same couplets as they sing of inevitable doom (“Baby it’s Halloween/I’ll be whatever you want”). “Chinese Satellite” is about her nihilistic view of life and a lack of faith in the world or in herself (“I want to believe/Instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing/You know I hate to be alone/I want to be wrong”).
“Punisher,” “Moon Song,” and “Savior Complex” all find Bridgers dealing with her nurturing instincts getting the best of her as she grapples with the pain of caring too much for somebody with self-destructive tendencies and low self-esteem who cannot reciprocate, which ends up draining her of all her energy. The lilting, emotional folk track “Graceland Too” contains a banjo, a fiddle, and ethereal background vocals by Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus.
The album comes to a close with “I Know the End,” with Bridgers making peace with the uncertainty of her future and the world coming to an end (“A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall/Slot machines, fear of God/Windows down, heater on/Big bolts of lightning hanging low”). The final instrumentation mirrors the album’s intro and builds until it reaches an orchestral climax with strings, primal animalistic hissing and guttural screaming reminiscent of an apocalyptic horror film score.
“Punisher” is an amalgamation of emotional highs and lows and dry lyrical wisecracks that paint a picture of a world in decay. What’s even more impressive is that Bridgers manages to make the listener laugh at the same time as she spits out lyrical prose that comes as a visceral punch to the gut.