Album Review: Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher

The solo artist, boygenius, and Better Oblivion Community Center member’s second album delivers modern perceptions on mental health and weighty musings on relationships, while displaying the effects and symptoms of relationships rather than simply being love songs, across a lurid but vivid instrumental canvas.

The opener’s warped, sparse and eerie vocals resonate like an onomatopoeic representation of the juddery, outdated technology implied in the title. These gentle whispers spread a nostalgia which the whole album is steeped in, whether through the textured horns and strings, Bridgers’ rich storytelling, or a multitude of other embellishments. The instrumental opening of DVD Menu features Bridgers’ baritone guitar twanging wistfully, transitioning seamlessly into lead single Garden Song, where her playing continues to enrapture.

This deft handling of contrasting emotions is felt especially on the aforementioned Kyoto. The music itself yields a seemingly triumphant sheen but the lyrics delve into areas of self-loathing, scorn and anxiety. This impeccably blended balance evinces many of the greatest grunge acts. The songwriter, who has steadily ascended to much critical acclaim since her 2017 debut, says Kyoto centres on alcoholism and dissociation. Although impossibly grateful for her life, she admits to experiencing guilt at incredible high points, saying that Kyoto “is about being in Japan for the first time, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go, playing my music for people who really want to hear it, and feeling…bad.” Handling topics of such gravity is something Bridgers does beyond expertly.

Halloween, with Conor Oberst’s soothing backing vocals, contains a similar world-weary but quietly hopeful spirit of BOCC’s cuts such as Didn’t Know What I Was in For. This track discusses a relationship fraught with alcoholism and it’s perils, with the beautifully yearning lyrics of “Baby it’s Halloween/We can be anything/Come on, man/We can be anything” at the core. The album is abundant in such poetically charged phrases, like “And if I could give you the moon/I would give you the moon” (Moon Song), “And walk right by the house where you lived with Snow White/I wonder if she ever thought the storybook tiles on the roof were too much” (Punisher), or the personal tale Bridgers so eloquently explores in ICU with the haunting “If you’re a work of art/I’m standing too close/I can see the brush strokes”. With these impassioned, considered lyrics and incredible arrangements, Punisher is indescribably full-bodied.

The rising artist has an excellent producer in Ethan Gruska, who also shaped her debut A Stranger in the Alps, and also whom adds many of the intrinsic layers to Punisher, with Bridgers stating that “I feel like the most important thing that happened to me is meeting Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, who produced my first album,”, and that “Going back and making a record with the same people has been so insanely cool.” Gruska plays many integral parts, including the mellotron on Moon Song and Graceland Too’s pump organ parts. Co-producer Tony Berg also adds more eclectic instrumentation with the use of Ukrainian instrument the bandura, as well as the banjo on Graceland Too, which recalls the folkier heart of Bridgers’ debut.

Punisher concludes with Graceland Too and I Know The End, two emphatic, freewheeling songs including the vocals of Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker of boygenius. The latter, with the increasingly untamed horns, sees Bridgers let out a majestically cathartic scream which metamorphoses into a whispered roar as the very last sound on the album. This is a trademark of Bridgers’ work, as she expertly grants levity to the moments of bruised tension. Kyoto also contains an uplifting moment like this, in the gleeful woop between verses, particularly poignant with the whimsical look she gives in the accompanying video.  

Although utilising many of her song-writing partners from past work, Bridgers rises to the fore throughout, constantly putting her impressively matured style into the music. Her touring manager Jeroen Vrijhoef mellow backing vocals bathe Garden Song in further levels of sumptuous sorrow. There is also the vigorous bass of Warpaint’s Jenny Lee Lindberg (on ICU and I Know the End) and electric guitars from bandmate Harrison Whitfield, alongside the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner (on I Know the End).

This second solo effort gathers the strengths of previous projects and then, as shown in her producing experience with the boygenius EP, doubles down on them with greater depth and understanding.

Out today on Dead Oceans.

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