2020 – Country / Folk
Phoebe Bridgers’ second album is an exciting journey: alongside emotion-filled lyrics, she plays familiar and psychedelic instruments. It’s almost as if we’ve entered her thoughts and are living inside her head.
A quick Google search can easily give you any superficial information about Phoebe Bridgers’ life. With two clicks you find out that she is 25 years old and was born California and down the page you learn about the musical groups she has set up with personal friends. If you’re a little more persistent, you also find out that she studied Jazz Vocal at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and that she is bisexual. However, not everything can be found on information sites, social media pages or interviews for music magazines. There are certain things that you can only discover if you experience and feel them in the most naked and vulnerable way possible. And this is how Phoebe Bridgers’ songs are, especially on her excellent second studio album, Punisher.
Although she started writing her first songs at the age of 11 and spent her adolescence singing in concert halls, it was only at the age of 20 that her star started to glow. During a show in which she played the song she wrote, “Killer”, singer and songwriter Ryan Adams was attracted to her sound. He quickly invited her to a session in the studio, which generated three songs on Killer EP. From then on, her career started to take off as she received numerous invitations to participate in tours by several singers, such as Julien Baker and Violent Femmes. Right after the period of sparkles on stage, she sat down and started writing her great debut, Stranger in the Alps, in which she looked like a ghost on the cover, while a dog, trees and a rainbow made up the rest of the scene. Now, she wears a black skeleton outfit, goes to the middle of the desert and looks up while a red light is projected on her. Some may say that she is being abducted, or perhaps, we are being abducted. And this is how his second album comes about and is composed: Punisher is strangely familiar, surrounds the listener with powerful lyrics that, even wide-open, are intimate and with a simple and dense atmosphere that manages to convey a feeling of sadness and emotion through simple strings and unambitious synthesizers. A journey that is not strange for anyone, but is different for everyone.
While her first album was still shy at times, Punisher looks even stronger and stands firm using synthesizers, thick strings and high pianos as the basis of its emotional structure. However, the strongest point of this album is its lyrics that are carefully sewn by lines that come together to give a greater meaning. Right after the album’s opener, “DVD Menu”, in which we feel a dense, mysterious and terrifying fog composed of an intimidating violin, we are taken to “Garden Song”, the album’s first single. Contrasting the first moments of tension of the album, the second track appears more friendly with a nice guitar that plays a sweet and soft melody that passes a certain peace. Even so, her lyrics are her strongest point, in which she can describe a new world where dreams fight nightmares and vice versa. She starts the track by singing with her serene voice: “Someday, I’m gonna live / In your house up on the hill”; however, in the following sentences she breaks the peace and shows a murder: “And when your skinhead neighbor goes missing / I’ll plant a garden in the yard, then”. And while she insists on looking to the future (“And when I grow up, I’m gonna look up”), she creates this incredible song. Not only because of the acoustic guitars that play cautionary notes or for the masculine voice that gives it a new charm, but mainly as its lyrics manage to be something so wonderful and grand and seem natural to her. It’s almost as if you are in her thoughts, studying her essence.
And this is how all of Punisher’s lyrics are: clear but not to the point of being a banal thing; full of unique and well-structured feelings. Even those that appear to be simpler even have excellent lyrics. “Kyoto” is one of my favorites. In addition to this rhythm that mixes and wanders through different musical genres, Phoebe writes lyrics that are easily transformed into lucid scenes in our heads: “You called me from a payphone / They still got payphones / It cost a dollar a minute” and “And stare at the chem trails / With my little brother / He said you called on his birthday”. Moments later, we are taken to a new level of emotion with “Halloween”, where she describes a worn-out relationship that is being held by a thread. This track features one of the most beautiful choruses: while she sings “Baby, it’s Halloween / And we can be anything” her voice performs incredibly, making it look like she was dissolving into sadness as a guitar, bass and drums played in the background. Even tracks that sound like moments of momentary happiness, like “ICU” (later renamed “I See You”), sound beautiful because they pass the feelings with incredible fidelity.
However, her loving representations are not always related to her relationships. On the album’s title track she talks about the love between a fan and its idol — and maybe she might even have redefined love here. It is no mystery to anyone who accompanies her that she is a huge fan and admirer of Elliott Smith’s work and in this track, she shows this love in a beautiful tribute. She starts by quoting drug stores that appeared in Smith’s jobs and even the homes he lived in, but even with a sad voice all the time, the most touching moment of the track is when she arrives in an epiphany and realizes that it doesn’t matter what how much she loves him, they will never meet each other: “What if I told you / I feel like I know you? / But we never met”. During this feeling of reflection, the track takes on a dreamy tone, coming close to a lullaby. Without a doubt, this is one of the best tracks on the album, not only for the simple fact of being a unique and well-constructed tribute, but for presenting an incredibly emotional and moving tenderness in all elements and moments.
Undoubtedly, one of the essential elements for Punisher to be so three-dimensional and profound is Bridgers’ voice that at different times sounds like one of the most beautiful audible things in the world. In “Chinese Satellite” she sounds sadly hopeful, fielding the lyrics, in which she sings: “I want to believe / Instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing / You know I hate to be alone / I want to be wrong “. At that moment, you may feel like crying, especially when a dramatic guitar hits your ears and convey a feeling of wanting to believe in a religion just to be able to believe in something after death. A little later, “Moon Song” appears with the strongest phrases of the album: she talks about hating a song but feeling empathy for the sincere feelings of the art (”We hate Tears In Heaven / But it’s sad that his baby died”), about the disappointment about his idols (“And we fought about John Lennon / Until I cried”) and compassion with his friends (“You are sick and you’re married / And you might be dying”). Again, all those lines that are sung by Phoebe’s incredible performance can easily make you cry.
Finally, even after “Savior Complex”, which ends up being the weakest on the album featuring the ups and downs of a relationship and sounding more like an interlude than a track, the album ends in a grand way. The guitars and violins become even more country in “Graceland”, a trip about the events of a friend who left a difficult moment and can now decide what she will do with her life (“She can do whatever she wants to do / She can go home, but she’s not going to”). And just as Punisher started, bright and deep with feelings, it ends in the same way with “I Know the End”, where she makes synthesizers stronger and brings together longtime friends like Conor Oberst, Blake Mills and Julien Baker, to a great finishing track. As she sings about returning home and extols the comforting power of her bedroom, she paints an American scene while reflecting on a fear of the real world, however, she is brave enough (“No, I’m not afraid to disappear”). At the end of it, a chorus of his friends appears singing “The end is here”. In fact, it’s the end, however, just like she said earlier, “She can do anything she wants to” and we couldn’t be more excited for the next chapter.