Artist: Phoebe Bridgers
Released: June 17th, 2020
Highlights: Garden Song, Kyoto, Chinese Satellite, I Know the End
“Punisher”, the second album by indie rock singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, derives its title from a quirky concept coined by the girl herself. In her mind, the term refers to a person who – as sweet as they may be – is completely unable to tell that those who are listening are not that interested in what is being said; and, as a consequence of that unawareness, the speaker simply keeps on talking without noticing they are the source of some social discomfort. As Phoebe puts it, a punisher can either be somebody one meets at a party and cannot stop rambling about bothersome topics or even a fan who, delighted at crossing paths with their idol, is too excited by the experience to even consider the source of their admiration might be busy, tired, or momentarily closed to interactions.
As an artist, it seems obvious Phoebe created the term out of personal experiences, since she is – after all – a human of some fame, which has undoubtedly caused her to be approached in less than ideal occasions. However, the album’s title song smartly shifts roles, putting the singer herself in the position of the one that is dishing out the punishment. And as a homage to her greatest inspiration, the person that is targeted by her uncontrolled mouth in the scenario imagined during the tune is none other than Elliott Smith, the legendary indie folk singer who died in 2003. Having lived close to Phoebe’s Los Angeles neighborhood before his passing, she imagines cornering him by his house and shudders at the mess she would make out of the situation.
Comparisons between Bridgers and Smith are nothing new, as they have been around since the girl’s 2017 debut, “Stranger in the Alps”; and Phoebe, even before writing “Punisher”, was never shy about who her biggest source of inspiration is. It is possible to say, though, that whatever parallels exist between the two artists – and they are certainly there – similarities have been somewhat over-amplified. In “Punisher”, Bridgers calls herself “A copycat killer with a chemical cut”, but the truth is her music is distant from Elliott’s. Smith was a folk singer at heart, one whose tunes of sorrow could be perfectly replicated when he sat on a stool with his acoustic guitar and almost whispered through a torrent of miserable words. Phoebe, on the other hand, is part of a far more developed indie scene, one with shiny production, full-band arrangements, and effects that add atmosphere to an intimate setting.
Rightfully, one could say that the passing of more than twenty years is responsible for that shift, as during that time the indie movement went on from being on the fringes of rock to the center stage; and such change in position transformed its aesthetic from garage lo-fi to delicate pop craft. Yet, the fact remains that the point in which the work of Phoebe truly meets that of Elliott is in the emotional realm. These are two artists that hold, in their writing, the ability to summarize devastating feelings in concise statements. They do not construct images carefully; they pile emotions on top of each other, remembering scenes in a fragmented dream-like manner in which every frame of the disconnected plot they retell was engraved in their heart thanks to the burning intensity of a feeling.
It is with that skill at full display that Phoebe returns in “Punisher”, and once more – as it was the case with Elliott – one has to wonder if the singer will be able to support the weight she carries on her shoulders. There is certainly a great deal of strength within her as well as an admirable courage in the fact she is able to be so open about it all, but the tunes are so delicate and her voice so frail that the breaking point always seems to be around the corner. As “Punisher” goes on, Phoebe checks all the boxes one would expect out of a sad album, including failed relationships, death, and depression. However, she adds to the pile some more unique and rather personal stories, including the lack of faith alluded to in “Chinese Satellite”; caring and trying to rescue a destructive person from their own demons in “Graceland Too”; feeling drowned by a mountain of terrible current affairs to the point one is sure the apocalypse is nigh in “I Know the End”; and, of course, the anxious awkward encounter of the title cut.
It is a lot of turmoil, but the weight of “Punisher” does not come solely from the fact it talks about sad matters; it also originates from how genuine Phoebe is as an interpreter and writer. There is little doubt she has gone through all feelings described here; this is no flowery storytelling. And the frailty of most tunes augments that perception. Guitars are always picked or plucked, rarely being strummed at all; the rhythmic low-end of the songs is created by a conjunction of occasional pulses as well as atmospheric effects by numerous tasteful synthesizers; and keyboards add a relaxing backing luster to the tunes, making them float in the air as if the instruments were being played on the surface of the Moon. In the middle of that aural magic, numbed by hurt, Phoebe painfully whispers like somebody who is watching a sad slow-motion film of her life passing through her mind.
Although consistent in mood and pace, “Punisher” finds ways to occasionally break out of the pattern that dominates it, a progress that makes it slightly better than its good but overly monotonic predecessor. “Kyoto” is a pleasant surprise, a tune in which Phoebe makes use of her band to rock out a little and go for a slightly faster tempo, which nicely suits the theme of disorientation seen in the track; in addition, the song is made brighter by the use of a brass section and both an infectious rhythm and a soaring chorus that make it perfect for radio play. “Chinese Satellite” adds more intensity to its chorus each time around, eventually throwing violins, frantic drums, and a noisy guitar into the mixture. “ICU” has a chaotic start-and-stop steady beat that owes a bit to The Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting For The Man”. “Graceland Too” is catchy misery with a country tinge. And “I Know the End” has almost half of its running time dedicated to an epic cathartic sing-along outro that borrows from the indie rock playbook.
Overall, it is awfully difficult to find fault with “Punisher”. It is a concise work of great thematic and musical cohesion. Furthermore, it has no obviously weak cuts, even if some of its slower parts at times flirt with merging with one another in their lethargic beauty. As great as it may be, though, it is possible to say the defining work of Phoebe’s career is still – hopefully – ahead of her, because the one element that “Punisher” lacks is a unique creative spark to further separate it from the scene that originated it. Although not quite the copycat of Elliott Smith she shames herself for being, in wading through the terrain of well-produced indie sadness, Phoebe navigates too close to what a listener expects out of a genre that has been very omnipresent during the past years. And even if melodically and lyrically she is a point out of the curve, the music has yet to find a truly remarkable breakthrough. Consequently, “Punisher” is just about flawless, but its perfection is excessively grounded on what has been done before.