The Tender Catharsis of Phoebe Bridgers’ ‘Punisher’

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This article was originally published on Popjuice.

Moving away from the folk sounds that characterized much of her debut album, Bridgers’ long awaited follow-up is a sparse, atmospheric odyssey. Starting with lead single Garden Song, an exploration of intimacy and growing up, Punisher at once finds itself in dreamy territory. The song carries the influence of British band The 1975, whom Bridgers recently collaborated with, by way of distorted background sounds atop a guitar melody.

As always, it is the 25-year-old’s precocious songwriting that forms the nucleus of much of the record, as with this line from Garden Song that invokes a sense of melancholic blur:

I’m at the movies, I don’t remember what I’m seeing
The screen turns into a tidal wave
Then it’s a dorm room, like a hedge maze

Where there are slightly more upbeat moments on Punisher, they are merely foils for heavy subject matter. Kyoto, the album’s second single, is a chirpy indie rock number about her relationship with her father, as well as the imposter syndrome she experienced when in Japan. On Chinese Satellite, she questions her identity and sense of powerlessness:

I’ve been running around in circles
Pretending to be myself
Why would somebody do this on purpose
When they could do something else?

Identity is a recurrent theme on Punisher. On the hauntingly soothing ballad Halloween, which features vocals from her Better Oblivion Community Centre bandmate Conor Oberst, Bridgers sings that “It’s Halloween, we can be anything”. On Savior Complex, she confronts her psychological shortcomings in a lush, string-filled number that takes its time to unravel itself.

At the end of the record, we get the very aptly titled I Know The End, in which she sings about a discordant world where Germany is Texas, complete with “Big bolts of lightning hanging low” as lightning sounds come in for some blink-and-you-miss-it text painting. The song’s outro is a true highlight of the album, as everything from clashing drums, horns, screams and growls get a part to play in the cacophony. Drawing from the title, it’s almost as if we’re witnessing the Punisher release their pent-up wrath. Yet it remains unclear what role Bridgers plays in it all: is she tormentor, or tormented?

Either way, as the album draws to a frightful, grandiose close, one thing is certain: catharsis is a dish best served cold.

Feature image by Frank Ockenfels

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