When asked about the pressure of writing the follow-up to her successful debut Stranger in the Alps, Phoebe Bridgers responded with an emphatic fuck no. “I made the whole record knowing that people were going to hear it. And I made the first record being like, “I wonder if I’m going to have to get a day job after this,” Bridgers explained in a recent UPROXX interview. “Mostly I just wanted it to be better than the first record, which I think it is.” With that clearheaded mindset, Bridgers’s new record Punisher accomplishes that and more – her lyricism has never been sharper while each track features richer and deeper song textures than ever before.
With Punisher, Bridgers’s worldview continues to expand even as the world around her (and us) falls apart. Love, death, and the impending apocalypse are consistently swirling around us, and Bridgers is fiercely captivated by every detail and how they exist within everyday banalities. Her interpretations and retelling of each one is wittier and sharper than ever. “Garden Song” begins with Bridgers daydreaming of living in her friend’s “house up on the hill,” but only after implying that the white supremacist neighbor has been murdered and buried in her new garden. There’s a contentment behind the wistful opener as she reveals that “the doctor put her hands over my liver/she told me my resentment’s getting smaller,” melancholically sighing, “No, I’m not afraid of hard work/I get everything I want/I have everything I wanted.”
This moment of happiness slowly fades away during the duration of Punisher’s eleven tracks – as each track and lyric resonate and cut deeper than ever. The hazy “Moon Song” remembers mundane memories intermixed with painful ones – a recollection about hating Eric Clapton (an all-timer really: “We hate ‘Tears in Heaven’/but it’s sad that his baby died”) triggers a tearful fight about John Lennon. But ultimately, the deepest cut is left for herself – despite all the pain caused by this unnamed partner; Bridgers would still give them everything (“And if I could give you the moon/I would give you the moon”). This brutal self-awareness and deprecation is omnipresent – “Savior Complex” blends its rich, dreamy structure with Bridgers’s dragging of herself (“I’m a bad liar with a savior complex”). At the same time, the chillingly sparse “Halloween” recalls local tragedies while longing for one last mournful hurrah before catastrophe hits (“Baby, it’s Halloween/there’s a last time for everything/Oh, come on, man/we can be anything”). But it’s most apparent on the album’s title track – a whimsical number serving as the heart of the album. It’s poignant and unfiltered – not unlike the album’s other tracks – but it’s Bridgers at her most vulnerable, thinking of an alternate universe where she runs into her idol Elliot Smith, imagining herself as his punisher (“I can’t open my mouth and forget how to talk/’Cause even if I could/Wouldn’t know where to start/wouldn’t know when to stop”) and admitting that she fails with showing the same grace he once showed his admirers (“Hear so many stories of you at the bar/Most times, alone, and some, looking your worst/But never not sweet to the trust funds and punishers/Man, I wish that I could say the same/I swear I’m not angry, that’s just my face).
Punisher is only Bridgers’s second collection of solo work but that’s not to say the singer-songwriter hasn’t been busy during the years in between releases. There was the 2018 Boygenius collaboration with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus and last year’s super-duo effort with Conor Oberst – the huge Better Oblivion Community Center album. These partnerships have poured over into her songwriting – she seamlessly combined the best of modern pop songwriting with classic American songbook melody on her debut record, but Punisher is looser and more confident. The upbeat “Kyoto” and Funeral-esque “ICU” bring some excellent change-of-pace to Punisher, injecting some vibrancy that was sometimes missing from Stranger. The gorgeous “Chinese Satellite” builds like no other song in her discography, layered with celestial strings and zealous electric guitar as Bridgers tries to postpone the inevitable.
At 25, Phoebe Bridgers has already released two modern classics along with two adored super-group projects – Punisher will obviously be a surefire album of the year for many fans, writers, and publications – it might already be a surefire favorite to be one of the best records of a decade we are only (horrifically) seven months into. What’s truly mind-blowing is that we shouldn’t be arguing if Punisher will feature on the many “end of decade” lists but rather how many Phoebe Bridger records will be on these lists (if we make it that far as a civilization). Obviously, I’m projecting way too far into the future, and Bridgers herself would most likely roll her eyes as such praise, but there’s no denying that Punisher has already carved out its place in indie-rock lore.
It’s fairly apparent that Bridgers’s endeavors with BOCC and Boygenius (the trio joins forces once again on the dazzling “Graceland Too,” a delicious slice of modern folk-americana and one of the records purest forms of happiness – the climatic harmony is to die for and has this reviewer yearning for another Boygenius release) as well as working with artists like The 1975, Matt Berninger, Hayley Williams, Christian Lee Hutson, and more has only strengthened her already incredible songwriting. This bears the most fruit on Punisher’s epic finale “I Know The End.” Undoubtedly a song of the year contender, Bridgers finally confronts armageddon head-on with her closest confidants (Oberst, Boygenius, Hutson, Nick Zinner, and Tomberlin are just a fraction of the song’s guests), the airy number breezes through a first half that’s reminiscent of Sufjan Stevens’ best before devolving into pure chaos (perhaps borrowing a bit from the Bright Eyes’ classic “Road To Joy”). It’s pure catharsis; waiting to be released over the course of Punisher’s forty minutes and ending with Bridgers’s muffled screams – a mutual feeling of finality and “now what?”. But regardless of what happens next in this hell world, Bridgers makes a calming promise and reveals a glimmer of positivity during the album’s final moments: “Either way, we’re not alone, I’ll find a new place to be from.”