Phoebe Bridgers – Punisher
Folk | Alternative | Indie Rock
“I’ve been running around in circles, Pretending to be myself, Why would somebody do this on purpose, When they could do something else?” The opening lines of ‘Chinese Satellites’ would hit you hard at the best of times, but when already neck deep in the existential crisis stage of lockdown you feel them even more keenly. It’s easy to lose hours at this point just contemplating your own sense of identity and ruminating on the things in life that really matter. For those lost in such thoughts and seeking a soundtrack for the journey inward, Punisher has arrived at the perfect time. In many ways this is a record about feeling disconnected. About a messy and unfulfilling world passing you by, and just trying to snatch what little handfuls you can to hold close and cherish before they crumble away between your fingers.
Music can be a great source of comfort; sad songs especially so, as they provide solace in knowing that someone out there feels the same way. This odd sense of reassuring sadness is ever present in Phoebe’s new record. I’m particularly enamoured with how her lyricism is able to articulate that depression isn’t merely “feeling down” and is often more a sensation of emptiness. It’s something you rarely see depicted, and rarer still is it done as well as in the record’s most uptempo offering ‘Kyoto’, which details Phoebe following her dreams and visiting the eponymous city but still feeling unfulfilled thanks to impostor syndrome and the emotional baggage that made the same journey.
To pigeonhole the album as merely an exploration of emptiness would be doing it a disservice however. There are a some deeply heartfelt and earnest moments to be found here, like the elegy for her idol Elliot Smith on the title track or the lovesick yearning of ‘Moon Song’. In between the record’s most purposeful tracks we also find the more disjointed side of Phoebe’s lyricism. The side that flits between the small moments of beauty and humour in the mundane corners of life like a magpie gathers shiny things. Here too the record feels incredibly prescient and relatable. It’s usually the smallest things that get us through our darkest times, the faintest of threads that hold us together, and Phoebe delights in calling attention to them.
While the lyrics alone are enough to make this record worth your time, they’re only half the story, as there’s there’s also some surprisingly rich instrumentation at work. The quiet moments carry a hazy atmosphere that really adds to sense of disconnectedness, like the half-heard hum of the city as you wander the streets lost in a daydream. Again we get to delight in the little details, the faint threads that criss-cross the album. The soft strings on ‘Saviour Complex’, the deep backing vocals on ‘Garden Song’, the joyful fanfare of brass on ‘Kyoto’. Even the brief opening instrumental ‘DVD Menu’ feels like it earns its place. The record ends on a high with the final two tracks thanks to the gorgeous harmonies with her boygenius bandmates and other collaborators. ‘Graceland Too’ features a bittersweet country twang, while the slow-burning closer ‘I Know The End’ runs through stream of consciousness lyrics towards a triumphant and cacophonous climax.
I had no expectations heading into Punisher, but in the end I can’t help but be moved by it. This familiar foray into what modern life feels like for so many of us reminds me that we’re not in this alone, and that even when you’re lost and the world is in flames (figuratively and literally) there are still little moments of solace to find if you know where to look.