Phoebe Bridgers has always been a little morbid. A ghost decorates the cover of her first record Stranger in the Alps, and she’s wearing a skeleton onesie on this one. But her darkness is flavored with a millennial dryness, a sense of humor that pumps air into the heaviness. Bridgers is at her best when she writes from a sort of purgatory, a space that exists between postmodern mundanity and a dark, dreamy underworld. This is the world of Punisher. She says it best in “I See You” when she sings “I’ve been playing dead my whole life.” Her music is certainly gloomy, but the keyword here is “playing.” What makes “Punisher” unique is that every bit of misery is asterisked with a wink. But what makes it transcendent is that it refuses to sacrifice its authenticity.
“Garden Song,” co-written with Christian Lee Hutson and drummer Marshall Vore (the subject of “I See You”), is the most incisive example of Bridgers’ ability to float between the mundane and the morose. The production is sweetly psychedelic, mellowed out by baritone backing vocals provided by an unexpected contributor: Bridgers’ tour manager Jeroen Vrijhoef. Full of visual subversions like “the screen turns into a tidal wave/ then it’s a dorm room, like a hedge maze,” “Garden Song” plants the seeds for her cheeky dreamworld. The final lyrics, though, are straight to the point: “I’m not afraid of hard work / I get everything I want / I have everything I wanted.” It’s a confidence that Bridgers wears as well as her skeleton costume, cementing her place as a formidable force in the industry.
After her acclaimed debut album in 2018, Bridgers made the rounds as a sought-after collaborator in the indie space. She released a record with Conor Oberst under the moniker Better Oblivion Community Center and another with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker as the supergroup boygenius. She even made several appearances on the 1975’s recent record Notes on a Conditional Form, and her experimentation over the past two years bleeds into Punisher’s sonic universe. Stranger in the Alps was anchored by acoustic whisperiness, but Punisher paints with more colors. “Kyoto,” an impostor syndrome anthem, airs on the cheery side with a plucky electronic hook and horns. and “Graceland Too” is such a successful country song, that it’s easy to imagine her collaborating with bluegrass artists down the road. But her collaborators’ influence is more than just symbolic; it’s impossible to miss Oberst, Dacus, and Bakers’ vocals in the background of tracks like “Graceland Too” and “I Know the End.”
The most obvious influence on the record, however, isn’t one of her living collaborators but the late Elliott Smith, the subject of the title track. Punisher is the inverse of the “don’t meet your heroes” proverb. Resisting the clichés of a tribute song, Bridgers claims that if Smith ever met her, he would be disappointed in her as a fan and an artist. It’s this kind of humility and self-awareness that makes Bridgers so compelling, and her insistence on being a music listener as much of a creator that adds to her charm.
A particularly formidable trio of songs is “Chinese Satellite,” “Moon Song,” and “Savior Complex.” The first verse of the uptempo “Chinese Satellite” succinctly captures the essence of the album: “I’ve been running around in circles / Pretending to be myself.” It’s another example of Bridger’s ability to find meaning in the tension between simple natural beauty (a starry night sky) and a stark reality (the titular satellite). “Moon Song” hearkens back to the moroseness of “Stranger in the Alps,” and not a word is wasted. “You are sick and you’re married / And you might be dying / But you’re holding me like water in your hands,” she wails in the outro, closing out one of her most cutting heartbreak ballads to date. “Savior Complex” is tiptoeing waltz, the soundtrack of a toxic couple slow dancing as the room around them burns to the ground. Singing of crocodile tears, skeletons, and vampires, Bridgers assigns a fragile beauty to an equally fragile relationship.
The only time “Punisher” airs on the side of indulgence is in its finale, the six-minute epic “I Know the End.” By this point, the chaos is an appropriate addition to an otherwise tightly wound record. The track dissolves into an outro of cascading couplets and a chorus of background vocals provided by an all-star lineup of collaborators: Christian Lee Hutson, Conor Oberst, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Tomberlin, and Blake Mills. The final sounds of “Punisher” are primal screams and breathy gasps that makes you either want to laugh out loud or cry in discomfort. It’s the perfect ending to the universe Phoebe Bridgers dominates. They come from the part of the psyche that relishes in dark humor, that hunts for deep emotionality, and that yearns to screams into a quiet crowd just to see what might happen.
Punisher is Phoebe Bridgers’ confident assertion that she belongs in the highest ranks of the indie music space. No other artist can dance between humor and morbidity, coyness and confession, and humility and assertiveness quite like she can. In an age clogged with existential despair, her music is a distillery for the most unwieldy of emotions and experiences. She refuses to simplify her sadness but never wallows in it; it’s a recipe for a body of work that’s as haunting as the inspiration that guides it.
Punisher is out now.