Review: Phoebe Bridgers’ ‘Punisher’

Bridgers takes a look at the intricacies that layer our life, and does so with great intimacy.

By+Luis+Mendoza

By Luis Mendoza

by Nina Raemont

There are few pieces of music that feel so intimate, so softly spoken, that the listener feels as though they are the voyeur of a private conversation. But Phoebe Bridgers, in her sophomore album, “Punisher,” released on June 18, accomplishes this exact sentiment. With her gentle voice and lyrics that treat the details of her life like an open wound, Bridgers’ “Punisher” is a tour de force of cynicism and vulnerability.

The album begins with “DVD Menu,” an instrumental track that lacks an abundance of instrumentation. Besides a couple of sharp strings, no outstanding instrumentation strikes the listener’s ear. This lack of intense sound sets the context for her album and transitions perfectly into “Garden Song.”

“Garden Song” explores themes of change and manifestation of desires with tinges of cryptic implications. Bridgers, in the first verse, references planting a garden in the yard after a “skinhead” neighbor goes missing. The juxtaposition of her soft voice and occult allusions to murder creates a smooth yet sinister track. The chorus, crooned by Bridgers and layered with soft guitar chords, reflects on change and alludes to achieving the things you want — no matter how dark the desire — with the lyrics “No, I’m not afraid of hard work/ I get everything I want/ I have everything I wanted.”

From here, the tone changes from soft to strong with “Kyoto,” a drum- and horn-heavy tune. Throughout the album many conversational remarks weave themselves into the lyrics of the songs, and “Kyoto” is a perfect example. With comments like “you called me from a payphone/ They still got payphones/ It cost a dollar a minute,” the listener sonically steps into Bridgers’ world and hears the minutiae of her own life. In the chorus, Bridgers sings, “I wanted to see the world through your eyes until it happened, then I changed my mind.” Perfectly encapsulating a relationship gone awry, the song reflects on travel and love and all the ways those things change after you have gotten used to them. 

The album teems with personality. From “Punisher,” a song dedicated to Bridgers’ idol, Elliot Smith, and the connection she feels with him, to “Halloween,” where we hear her joking about hospital sirens, saying, “I used to joke that if they woke you up, somebody better be dying,” the listener catches a glimpse into her perverse worldview.

Bridgers’ lyrics explore the complexity and futility of relationships with such swift strength. “Moon Song” opens with the lyrics “You asked to walk me home/ But I had to carry you” and highlights the shifting of power and responsibility within a relationship. Concluding with an attack on whomever the song is about, she passionately sings, “You are sick and you’re married and you might be dying, but you’re holding me like water in your hands.”

With mostly calm melodies, the harder and drum-heavy songs with instrumental complexity, like “I See You,” naturally jump out throughout the album. An eclectic tune with references to Bridgers’ depression and love, the clash of sound in “I See You” perfectly captures ideals of love and loss. The lyrics “And I get this feeling whenever I feel good/ It’ll be the last time” hit close to home, especially in the midst of a pandemic when days are plagued with uncertainty.

“Punisher” is a perfect album for the moment. Bridgers, with her cunning wit and lyrical depth, created an album that explores the multitude of emotions we experience through our lives, through our emotional dilemmas and through our own navigation of the world.  

Grade: A-