Phoebe Bridgers is I think the musical artist that I listen to that I’ve heard the most about from other students at my college. This isn’t really that surprising, as she has about 6 million monthly Spotify listeners, which is on the higher end of artists I listen to, though not high enough to enter Spotify’s list of the top 500 most listened-to artists on their service. That being said, I think her having that many listeners at all is pretty impressive, considering that her style of music doesn’t seem all that commercially pleasing to me. Granted, she is an indie folk artist, which is a pretty big genre amongst the white women (myself included), but I feel that the way she makes her songs is pretty significantly different from the majority of other indie folk musicians. Granted, this is not super evident in some of her more popular material, like her most enduring song “Motion Sickness”, which, while an incredible song, is a pretty standard alt-country-ish indie rock tune, but a lot of the stuff on her more recent album Punisher cements Bridgers as one of the more forward thinking indie voices of modern times in my eyes.
Punisher opens with “DVD Menu”, which is just a minute-long instrumental opening track, so it would be pretty easy to not really pay it any mind. However, the song does lay a lot of the groundwork for the sonic palette of the album to come. There’s what I think is a treated guitar playing the lead part of the song, with a violin providing counterpoint and Bridgers’ hushed whispering underneath those 2 instruments. However, this simple instrumentation is used in a way very unlike how they would be used if left untreated in production, with the minimalist guitar line having each of its individual notes held a little bit longer than usual, which combined with the quiet murkiness of the guitar’s sound results in these two instruments becoming a whole sonic blanket, somewhat uneasy but still welcoming you into the world of the album and letting yourself get lost in it for a while.
This is pretty much the wavelength that Punisher operates on for the rest of its runtime. The first “real” song on the album, “Garden Song”, picks up right where “DVD Menu” ended, with a deceptively simple instrumental track that uses its repeating pattern of staticy guitar blips, barely-there percussion and a radio-like synth lead to create a sort of dreamy atmosphere not often found in indie folk - or any music, really. Taking organic, folksy instruments and electronically manipulating them into a sort of artificial comfort zone is the name of the game here, and this works especially well when you consider the lyrical content of the album. A lot of the subject matter covered on Punisher covers a sort of perversion of the “idealized” America, what with the nice little cottage o’ love that is the setting of “Garden Song” being haunted and on fire with dead Nazis buried underneath, the stars we used to wish upon being replaced by the titular “Chinese Satellite”s, and especially the closing number “I Know the End” - but more on that one later. These lyrical themes of living in the new, uncertain, often depressing reality that we face while still contending with the American Dream mythos so embedded in our society fit very well with the electronic perversion of folk that Punisher is musically. The album is simultaneously familiar and comforting due to its basis in music and ideas that everyone has known about since they were kids and have existed way before that, and uncertain and tense due to the world that we live in being uncertain and tense, and the music reflecting that in the form of the sort of uncanny valley versions of familiar instruments present on the album. And while this societal tenseness and feeling like we’re constantly on the brink of something horrible happening is obviously not an ideal way to live, when you apply these feelings to music, they become enjoyable both as a method of coping with reality, and as a sonically unique experience that’s still familiar enough to not be offputting, a quality that rewards repeated listens of Punisher and lets you draw yourself deeper into the album’s world every time you hear it.
i should probably also mention that the fucking gorgeous cover art here is both beautiful and strangely artifical-feeling, kind of like the album itself. one of my favorite album covers ever as well
Of course, Punisher isn’t all synth-folk ballads about how much America sucks. More upbeat and personal tunes coexist with the quieter numbers as well. (note: pretty much every song here is personal to some extent, but some of them are a lot easier to extrapolate into themes of disillusionment than others, and others are a lot more explicitly about things that have happened in bridgers’ life.) The most obvious example of this is the album’s third track, “Kyoto”, which features actual rock instrumentation in addition to some of the album’s trademark floaty synths, and is very explicitly about Bridgers’ relationship with her father. “Kyoto” is actually kind of an anomaly on Punisher, both musically and lyrically: the other 3 big upbeat songs on the album (“Chinese Satellite”, “ICU”, and “I Know the End” - again, more on that last one later) retain far more of the album’s folkier elements and are about far vaguer things lyrically. “Kyoto” is, in contrast, very direct, but it still works cohesively as part of the whole both for providing a change of pace, and for featuring an absolutely killer horn section following its chorus, which is important because these horns serve as sort of a Chekhov's Gun for the ending of the album as a whole. “I Know the End” is probably my absolute favorite closing track of all time, and it ranks pretty highly on my list of favorite songs ever in general. The song starts pretty similar to the other quieter tracks on the album, with a synth chord that sounds like a broken choir, softened electronic guitar and Bridgers singing about the same kind of stuff as the rest of the album - friends and love and raid sirens going off as everything goes to shit. Pretty standard fare at this point, really.
Then the drums kick in.
Suddenly, the song takes on a sense of urgency not heard anywhere else on the album, the lyrics shifting to driving away from some sort of unseen force and the music gradually increasing in intensity, but slowly enough that it feels like it’s going to be a while until anything really happens. The drums gradually increase in volume, more backing vocals get added, and then the horns from “Kyoto” return, sounding more triumphant than ever even as the apparent end of the world is upon us. Finally, Bridgers proclaims that “the end is here”, and the horns and drums finally burst into the forefront, but it still feels like we haven’t hit the climax of the song yet. Out of nowhere, Bridgers starts screaming her fucking lungs out. Up until this point on the album, the loudest the vocals had ever gotten were Bridgers crying out an impassioned “hey” on “Kyoto”, only a little bit louder than her normal singing voice, and this contrast means that it’s really hard to do justice to how intense hearing this moment for the first time is in words alone. The end of the world, something that it feels like we are slowly but surely tumbling towards in real life, is not pretty. But even after this gigantic release of anger with the world that’s been building up over the entirety of the album, the song isn’t quite over yet. Punisher’s ending moments are of Bridgers’ screams being reduced to a throaty whisper, punctuated with a laugh at the end for good measure, and suddenly, the apocalypse doesn’t seem all that scary anymore. It’s pretty clear by now that the “end of the world” won’t be the literal end of the world, just a major calamity that life will continue on after. And if we persevere through that calamity, maybe the new order we can establish will end up being better than the old one in the long run. After all, the only reason why we’re angry at the way things are instead of despairing about it is because we have hope that we can change things for the better eventually.