The sad girl Queen of the indie-pop world, Phoebe Bridgers, has chosen a perfectly apt time to release her newest offering to her loyal and growing subjects. Given the current state of the world, this newest shouted whisper of often painful vulnerability from Bridgers is proving a welcomed guest in people’s lives right now. Some folks will use KC and the Sunshine Band to dissolve their sadness and that works just fine, but some of us need to give in fully to what we feel and spin a sad record for a little while. Although Punisher fits nicely in that category, Bridgers still manages to sneak in some other stuff here and there.
Opening the record is the very ominous, Radiohead-ish instrumental track “DVD Menu.” In my opinion, that’s a risky move. If it wasn’t for the title of the track, which I find very funny for some reason, I probably wouldn’t dig it as the opening track. It doesn’t matter either way though, because the next track and first single released off the album, “Garden Song” is so solidly in her sweet spot that “DVD Menu” might as well not exist. The album starts here. For some reason in her songs, things that might otherwise be considered “oversharing,” work as extremely beautiful and often heartbreaking little moments of real life. The first line, “Someday, I’m gonna live in your house on the hill. And when your skinhead neighbor goes missing, I’ll grow a garden…” doesn’t hit like a line about killing someone and burying their body in the yard. The muddy lulling of her fingerpicking and sweetness of her voice gives an otherwise chilling line, a feeling of — peace, maybe? I don’t know, but I like it. The rest of the song follows suit closely.
The following track, “Kyoto” which was the second single released and just so happens to be my favorite track, is a powerhouse indie-pop tune. Thick with a blaring horn, cute synth lines, and a hard-driving drum, forcing any listener with a heartbeat to follow along with a head bob. This puts on display my favorite version of Phoebe’s voice. The chorus is halfway between yelling and singing, almost overdriving her vocals, but never quite making it. It’s very, very cool. What a strong track!
Ok, ok, I need to move this thing along. The title track “Punisher” follows with a true-to-form tinkle-y piano and soft, sweet vocals, but don’t get too comfortable with the sweetness of the sound. The lyrics continue the trend of painful honesty with lines like, “When the speed kicks in / I go to the store for nothing / 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 / But from the window / it’s not a bad show / If your favorite thing’s Dianetics or stucco.”
Next up is “Halloween”, a track further down the list of my favorites, but it does well in giving the record more of a dynamic sound. It has a different feel than the rest of the album, which some folks (maybe even me at times) might find distracting, but in this case, I can appreciate the change-up. It almost has a Tom Waits feel with a clunky guitar-picking part (mixed with what might be a synth or muted bass?) that sounds like a cartoon skeleton playing its own ribcage. Our old friend, Connor Oberst shows up toward the end of the track singing back up. That was fun.
For some reason, the melody of the chorus on “Chinese Satellite” gives me a Disney song vibe. I mean that in the best way possible. Although, this more cheerful melody and rhythm is a welcomed treat after the melancholy of the previous few tracks, don’t expect her lyrics to be about princesses sung by a talking alligator. She still singing about some sad stuff, but with lines like, “Drowning out the morning birds / With the same three songs over and over / I wish I wrote it, but I didn’t so I learn the words / Hum along ’til the feeling’s gone forever” who cares? Bring it on.
“Moon Song” doesn’t have my favorite sounds of the record, but lyrically it might be the strongest. I won’t write too much about it, I’ll let Pheobe speak for herself. “You couldn’t have, you couldn’t have / Stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody / Who loves you more / So I will wait for the next time you want me / Like a dog with a bird at your door”
Dammit! That “dog with a bird” line is really good. Ok, Moving on.
“Savior Complex” for whatever reason, doesn’t do much for me at the moment. I could see my mind changing on it later, but for now, it feels a little sonically repetitive in the tracklisting. As always, the lyrics are soaked through with heart-wrenching openness. I have yet to have any complaints about her writing at all. She’s pitching a no-hitter here.
“ICU” comes right out with much needed, faster tempo and a strong downstroke synth part. There is a bit of later Wilco in this track that I find really refreshing for an album that can get a little sleepy towards the last quarter. Big chorus, guitars strumming, curse words, and that yell/sing thing at the end of the track gave me the little boost of energy I needed to open back up for the last two tracks.
Tony Berg pickin banjo, Sarah Watkins on violin, a variety of strings, what sounds like an old pump organ, and Julien Baker on back up vocals; “Graceland Too” has all the markings of a pleasant little folk ditty. The harmonies on are point, always staying so neatly parallel that you almost forget that Julien is there. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what this song is about and I feel like I should know better than to say what I’m gonna say, but here it goes: This is the first song on the album that feels hopeful. There is a feeling of redemption or maybe healing on the air. Knowing how she do, I’m probably wrong, but I am gonna enjoy this track and my ignorance, while it lasts.
The last song, “I Know the End”, has a consistently building pile of droning, swirling recordings that finally explode into a wonderful and screaming key change. Horns and drums and yelling and God knows what else, flies from that moment of singularity, at what feels like a million miles per hour. An incredible end to an incredible album.
Emo is back, y’all. I don’t think we asked for it. I’m not sure anyone really wanted it. But it’s back and better than ever.