If the state of the world hasn’t already alerted you that it’s officially going to be a Sad Girl Summer, Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher will have you staring at the ceiling, questioning the state of the world with a single tear down your cheek.
The album’s cover (with Bridgers rocking a skeleton one-piece and standing on another planet) might’ve given it away, but if it doesn’t, Punisher is an out of body and paralyzing affair that discusses death, heartbreak, and imposter syndrome against a fizzy sci-fi soundscape. The eleven-track record is rooted in indie rock, with angst and bitter emotions swelling beneath Bridgers’ tender and pain-filled vocals. Listening to it evokes a feeling of numbness, as it gently commands your attention through simmering, melancholic melodies and ambient interludes.
Bridgers has swiftly taken over the indie scene as the One To Watch since her debut Strangers In The Alps was released three years ago. Her ability to combine gentle, emotive vocals with personal and often humorous lyrics won the hearts of indie rock fans who anxiously awaited the solo sophomore album.
We haven’t heard Bridgers on her own in a while. Last year she dropped a surprise release, Better Oblivion Community Center, with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst and formed the boygenius trio with cult-indie favourites Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. If that wasn’t enough, she befriended Matty Healy of landed one of The 1975’s sought-after collaborative slots, appearing on multiple tracks on their latest album. Punisher features plenty of familiar voices, along with Warpaint‘s Jenny Lee Lindberg on ‘Kyoto’ and ‘ICU’ and Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on ‘I Know The End,’ but it’s always Bridgers’ poignant and hushed vocals that act as a light to bring listeners out of the darkness of her sombre-toned tracks.
Punisher paints Bridgers as a modern-day witch, creating spell-binding eerie synth and guitar-led tracks, as she explores life’s complexities in her signature melancholy and refreshingly blunt lyrics in tracks like ‘Halloween.’ Singing about a dead relationship, Bridgers reflects on the heartbreak sharing, “I hate living by the hospital / The sirens go all night / Used to joke that if they woke you up / Somebody better be dying.” The track is hauntingly beautiful, utilizing Bridgers’ wallowing vocals and harsh realizations, singing “Baby it’s Halloween, we can be anything,” as Oberst joins in like a ghost, repeating, “whatever you want.” The duet is bittersweet, playing on the duality of being both heartwarming and devastating.
Throughout the record, Bridgers discusses two major topics: imposter syndrome and morality. In the case of the latter, whether it’s the death of a relationship like in ‘Moon Song’ or an existential crisis in ‘ICU,’ a dark cloud of grief creeps at the door like the grim reaper. Bridgers’ lyrics are sharp like a knife, slowly digging in, but it’s always self-deprecating and witty more than disturbing. Lyrics like “I hate Tears In Heaven / But it’s sad that his baby died / And we fought about John Lennon / Until I cried” in synth-heavy ‘Moon Song’ are dark, but they’re more woeful than morbid.
Bridgers has certainly proved her ability as a multi-genre artist throughout the years, but somehow she still can’t find the confidence to feel like she deserves it. She criticizes herself on anthemic ‘Chinese Satellite,’ singing “I’ve been running around in circles / Pretending to be myself / Why would somebody do this on purpose / When they could do something else?” The plucky guitar slowly builds up to a crescendo, picking up a rock-rooted groove of electric guitar and string accompaniment that’s reminiscent of her 2017 hit, ‘Motion Sickness.’
Bridgers has tried her hand almost every aspect of the indie scene – from country-esque tracks to rock-heavy songs, and Punisher is a highlights reel of her career so far, combining the best of her back catalogue for a well-rounded record. Every song tells a story, and but each manages to be sonically and structurally different. There are country-rooted ballads like ‘Graceland Too,’ and indie-rock gems like ‘Kyoto,’ as well as tearjerkers like ‘Savior Complex.’ With vulnerability and unfiltered emotions at the forefront, there’s no ego to hide behind. Each song is a painful realization or dark memory that Bridgers has managed to transform into something chillingly beautiful.
This all comes together at the album’s closing tune, ‘I Know The End,’ a transformative, cathartic track. Navigating a poetic, bitter ending, Bridgers get some help from her favourite collaborators to create a rock-heavy, orchestral anthem. Starting as a striped-back guitar tune, there’s a building pressure as Bridgers frantically tries to find closure, reminding herself throughout the six-minute song, “So I gotta go I know, I know, I know.” Creating an imaginary chaotic universe with some not-so-subtle Wizard of Oz references, Bridgers tries to find ruby slippers to click three times to go home. It’s chaotic and freeing, ending in screaming and explosions that create fireworks of colours and emotions.
Most musicians start to get an ego if their debut does well, but Bridgers is still the shy and self-deprecating newcomer that the indie scene fell for three years ago, which is why Punisher is an absolute gem. Well-crafted and thoughtful, Punisher puts a hopeful spin on even the most dark and fragmented memories by taking you to another planet, even if it’s just for an hour.
Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher is released this Friday via Dead Oceans and is available to pre-order now.