Los Angeles musician Phoebe Bridgers writes songs that make the cool kids cry. While her fledgling outfits like Buster went mostly unnoticed, since her debut solo record Stranger In The Alps (2017), her standing has grown exponentially. Blessed with one of the most listenable voices to surface over the past decade, Bridgers has been a sought after collaborator with bands from the slow burn of The National to the chart stealing The 1975. Whilst it may be the fourth record she has released in as many years, Punisher is only Bridgers’ second solo album.
While her favoured instrument is still the baritone guitar (because its the saddest sounding instrument she can think of), there is a broader range of sounds on Punisher, as the songwriter embraces underlying electronic tones throughout. Kyoto sees Bridgers using a different palette as she veers into the world of high energy pop, complete with brass, mellotron and propulsive drums.
Punisher is a reference to a person who spent too long at the merch table and talked her ear off, with Bridgers hinting that she may be guilty of the same in the right circumstances. Moon Song is the only tune that is not co-written and is filled with more ache than most people can muster over the course of a record. The criminally underrated Christian Lee Hutson (who also has one of the albums of the year) assists in the writing of half of the album as does Bridgers’ other half in Better Oblivion Community Center, Conor Oberst.
Graceland Too tells of the struggles of supporting people through self destruction and addiction. The solemn banjo and pump organ driven tune reunites the members of supergroup boygenius (Bridgers, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus) to offer expert harmonies and heart.
The album ends with Bridgers’ most ambitious moment to date. I Know the End is a song in two parts that begins sedately enough with reflections on the anxiety of leaving before arriving at the resultant apocalypse. A cast of collaborators join Bridgers for a cacophony of instruments and screaming. It is menacing and captivating in the same breath.
Bridgers’ music is something that can be appreciated on many levels. On face value, these gentle sounding songs are pleasant to the ear with the vocals drawing you in. There are sounds and textures that unveil themselves which each listen, and for the most studious there is layers of meaning in her lyrics. Make no mistake, Bridgers is masterful at capturing poignant dread whilst littering her songs with humour and guile. Punisher does all this and more.