Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Many artists have a watershed moment that transitions them from a good to a great artist. People have an idea of who they are, and then – BAM – something happens creatively that feels totally appropriate, cementing their reputation, yet expanding it at the same time. For Bon Iver, his follow up to For Emma, Forever Ago did that for me. I feel like I’m experiencing another one of those moments with Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher.
When Phoebe released her debut a few years ago I was still on the Julien Baker train and had a short attention span for what I deemed to be “sad girl” music. Enter the Punisher train. Sometimes, there’s a bandwagon for a reason, folks.
Punisher, like Bon Iver’s self titled, takes a raw, vulnerable sound and adds new elements to create an encompassing, sweeping effect without compromising on the vulnerability aspect. The most immediately memorable song is without a doubt “Kyoto,” an indie rock jam with an angsty horn section that for some reason vaguely reminds me of the effect trumpets in The Chariot’s “First” had on my mood, despite these artists existing in vastly different worlds. The atmospheric effects of songs like the title track and “I See You” (formerly known as “ICU”) have more poignant, lasting effects. The dark, foreboding effects in the latter are reminiscent of a Phil Elverum composition, creating a headspace like standing the darkness in a space you usually find comforting – but not today, for some reason. Other songs, like “Moon Song,” are more straightforward in their approach. A simple melody and a sparse but steady rhythm get the job done.
You also don’t have to look far to be moved lyrically by Bridgers. Immediately, I noticed a stanza in the aforementioned “I See You” –
If you’re a work of art
I’m standing too close
I can see the brush strokes
I hate your mom
There’s certainly much to unpack in just those four lines. There’s a fine line between haphazard stream of consciousness songwriting and “less is more” brilliance, and often the distinction between the two is subjective. Here, I received a jarring combination of a visual and a feeling just by reading those words. It communicates a vulnerability that comes with intimacy, and Bridgers does a good job at expressing this sentiment elsewhere as well. Notably, she explores what it means to have intimate connections with others that aren’t lovers, such as bandmate Conor Oberst of Better Oblivion Community Center. Moon Song explores this, and is one reference of Conor’s recent journey after another.
There’s a song that hits me harder than the others. If you guessed one with religious undertones (remember, this is Ryan Getz writing this) you would be correct! Listening to this song had me asking myself, why, at a fundamental level, do I believe what I do? What drives me to pursue Jesus the way I do, and the way Phoebe seemingly wants to, but feels fundamentally cannot be done? I have to conclude that its a supernatural work that gives me that drive. Logic and reason alone do not wholly explain it. So, why does someone like Phoebe struggle?
Me too, Phoebe, me too. I think we all need to explore these feelings we have within us, whether existential or whimsical, and Phoebe exhorts us well that we do so. Whether quietly, like the album starts, or with a roar, like the album ends. Both are permissible.