REVIEW: PHOEBE BRIDGERS – Punisher

PHOEBE BRIDGERS // Punisher
[Dead Oceans // June 19th 2020 // LP*/CD/DD]

We now live in a world that gets scarier and more fucked up year on year. But if there is one thing we can be thankful for, it’s that people are much more open and honest than they’ve ever been, and are now being actively encouraged to speak their minds and express the troubling things in their lives as a means of catharsis to improve mental health and well-being. Perhaps this ethos has had a knock on effect to 21st century contemporary folk music, which feels more evolved and involved than ever before. We have Sufjan Stevens revisiting sad childhood memories, Bon Iver comprehending heartache out in a woodland cabin, Mount Eerie coming to terms with the death of his wife, and Mark Kozelek trying to make sense of the death of… Well damn, it seems like everyone in his life is dying tragically… But the point being, indie folk is a genre of music that really involves the listener, allowing the artists to share something deeply personal with them. Bridgers may even be alluding to this herself with the immortal chorus, “I feel like I know you, but we never met” – A sentiment the listener can easily reflect back to the artist.

Enter the midst of a global pandemic and Californian newcomer Phoebe Bridgers drops a sophomore album so raw, genuine, direct and loaded with feelings, that it becomes that massive cuddle that we’ve been craving. Even with Punisher dominating our stereo since release date, there is still this otherworldly quality that we just can’t quite explain when it comes to Phoebe Bridgers. Her voice is so distinct and smooth, yet fragile, with songs that are accessible and with so much depth, it’s genuinely a struggle to fully explain exactly why this record is so affecting, but every track really speaks for itself. From the slow shuffle of ‘Garden Song’ to the apocalyptic trumpet blasts and frenzied screams that close ‘I Know The End’, every song here is well defined and memorable. The explosive guitar driven ‘Kyoto’ and ‘Chinese Satellite’ are the perfect antitheses to the low-key melancholy of the title track, which takes melodic cues from The Goo Goo Dolls’ ‘Iris’, and the brittle ‘Halloween’ that lets Bridgers’ voice gently soar over what sounds like a warped music box melody. But arguably the most cutting song is ‘Moon Song’; a simplistic, lightly strummed three-chord wonder with a chorus that never emerges. Bridgers’ lyrics are half-sung, half-whispered almost like she is recalling a dream wrapped in sadness and longing; “I’m dreaming that you’re singing on my birthday / And I’ve never seen you smiling so big” and “You might be dying / But you’re holding me like water in your hands” are enough to make you well up and could leave a lump in your throat.

Thinking about Punisher on a deeper level, it feels like it could be a spiritual successor to a beloved album we consider a classic, Bright Eyes’ 2005 masterpiece I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning – And it’s no coincidence that Bright Eyes’ mastermind Conor Oberst is credited in the liner notes of both of Bridgers’ albums. The structural similarities are there, with Bright Eyes’ merging elements of alt-country, indie folk and alternative rock into one sphere. The male and female vocal duets, the juxtaposition of bombastic trumpet laden songs like ‘Another Travellin’ Song’ with bare ballads such as ‘Lua’ and ‘Poison Oak’, which sounds like Oberst is playing solo with an acoustic guitar right in your living room. Both albums even use a bird as a lyrical motif that tie together multiple songs. Hell, I’m Wide Awake ends with manic screams, squawking trumpets and thundering guitars too! And though it could be possible that Bridgers has been inspired by those blueprints, she manages to transcend and make an album equally as astonishing but done in her own commanding way.

Of course, you can hear her other influences too; the double tracked vocal takes popularised by Elliott Smith, and Sun Kil Moon’s diary-like lyrical honesty (Bridgers finished her debut album with a remarkable cover of Kozelek’s ‘You Missed My Heart’). But whilst this album is playing, all of those comparisons melt away. Punisher becomes more than an album listening experience and feels like one of those great deep conversations with someone you care deeply about at 3am, and your throat is sore from a drunken night’s combination of singing, shouting, laughing and crying. We’re not going to stand here and tell you that Phoebe Bridgers is the most original or groundbreaking musician out there, but she has made a subtle and nuanced modern masterpiece, one that reveals further depths with each listen to become one of the most pure and moving records of recent times.

//

Punisher is available now through Dead Oceans.

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