The artwork for Phoebe Bridger’s latest album, Punisher, is pretty sinister. Standing in the middle of the Californian desert, her head tilted to the sky, Bridgers wears a skeleton costume and the ground around her glows red. Its morbidity is fitting for an album that speaks so frankly about death: in her song ‘Halloween’, Bridgers sings “I hate living by the hospital/the sirens go all night”, and in ‘ICU’ that “I’ve been playing dead/my whole life”. In spite of her haunting lyrics, however, nothing about this album is dead – released on 18th June, it is a hurricane of different melodies, instrumentals and narratives, each of them bursting with colour and life.
Bridgers stormed onto the international music stage in 2017 with her album Stranger in the Alps, a folk-rock release that won her widespread acclaim and comparisons to Bob Dylan. Follow-up albums are tricky by design, often held back by the anxiety of recreating previous success, but Punisher is a clear anomaly here. The album is a broader range of experiments. Sonically, there is greater texture to tracks like ‘Garden Song’, enmeshed in synthesisers and a string quartet; ‘Kyoto’, the most pop-worthy single, brings together bass and brass; ‘Savior Complex’ swings between arpeggios with hypnotic ease. Lyrically, Bridgers is also at her most vulnerable. She sings of disorientation, millennial life and fame, delivering the lines “I’ve been running around in circles/pretending to be myself” (‘Chinese Satellite’) with characteristic Bridgers candour. The balance of wry lyrics with quiet melodies is difficult to achieve, but is done remarkably well by the twenty-five-year-old singer. The effect is akin to a seesaw: with each song, the world becomes blurrier, as if drunk, only to be immediately sharpened again with the piercing nature of Bridgers’ lyrics.
And the lyrics are this album’s greatest asset. Bridgers’ poetic palette is seriously rich – she cites the fellow Californian Joan Didion as an inspiration, and the album features a fictional biography by short-story writer Carmen Maria Machado. The result is a patchwork of influences, the fabric of which is gradually revealed throughout the album – there are notes of Sufjan Stevens in ‘I Know the End’, and the title track ‘Punisher’ is dedicated to one of Bridgers’ favourite musicians, Elliott Smith. “I wrote a song about how, if Elliott Smith were alive, I probably wouldn’t have been the most fun person for him to talk to”, Bridgers explained in her interview with The New Yorker this year. “I’m a superfan, and I know way too much about his music. So, I wrote that as if I were the punisher.” It’s a self-deprecating description of her devotion to Smith, but it speaks volumes about Bridgers’ readiness to acknowledge her influences, all while creating something of her own. (“Jeff Buckley!” she exclaims, unable to keep still when asked about her favourite singer as a teenager by the Rolling Stone. “I listened to his stuff every night”.) This album is an exploration of these pin-ups, marked out by its own agency: Bridgers is the ‘Punisher’ and not the punished.
Its one downfall? Perhaps the similarity between songs. Snatches of ‘Moon Song’ wouldn’t be amiss in ‘Halloween’; there is the danger that individual tracks lose their resonance by occasionally blending into one. There’s no denying, though, that Bridgers has released an album that so perfectly articulates the current moment. “I’ll get up and lay back down/romanticise a quiet life/there’s no place like my room”, she sings quietly in the final track, ‘I Know the End’ – a song that is pre-pandemic but curiously prophetic. Punisher is undoubtably a lullaby for the apocalypse, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.
(Image rights: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Phoebe_Bridgers_(42690561454).jpg image cropped from original)