Raw and Haunting, Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher Lives Up To Its Name

Phoebe Bridgers released her new album, Punisher, earlier than expected on Thursday, June 18th. “I’m not pushing the record until things go back to ‘normal,’ because I don’t think they should,” Bridgers said in a tweet that also included a link where fans would be able to donate to social justice organizations. “Here [the album] is a little early. Abolish the police. Hope you enjoy it,” she closed out her message.

Despite her attempts to downplay what’s been one of the most anticipated albums of the year, Bridgers finds herself — willingly or not — at an inflection point in her career, a peak in notoriety and output that’s established her as one of the vanguards of a stacked crop of young female singer-songwriters that began their careers in the latter half of the 2010s. 

Her 2017 debut album, Stranger in the Alps, was released to critical acclaim, and a number of its tracks would go on to be featured in broadcast TV shows like Castle and Lethal Weapon, providing her with an introduction to mainstream American tastes not typically afforded to her peers. In 2018, she’d team up with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus to form the supergroup boygenius, releasing a self-titled EP and embarking on a tour that same year. And then in 2019, she formed another supergroup, this time with Connor Oberst, releasing an album and touring as Better Oblivion Community Center, making buzzy appearances on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and CBS This Morning: Saturday. Not content to make music with just one 2000s indie legend, Bridgers would also go on to record a song with The National’s Matt Berninger for Between Two Ferns: The Movie (which she also made a cameo in), and then recruited Berninger and Fiona Apple to record the darkest, angriest cover of “Silent Night” ever released. She kept the ball rolling in 2020, not only releasing lead singles “Garden Song” and “Kyoto” to an adoring public, but also appearing on four tracks of another highly anticipated 2020 release, The 1975’s Notes On a Conditional Form, where she managed to wring out a quiet, heartfelt track from an otherwise bloated, vapid album. 

What’s striking about Bridger’s past four years isn’t just the quantity of music she’s put out, but the diversity of spaces she’s found herself in. Songs about funerals and emotional abuse don’t exactly scream “network TV,” nor does the music of Better Oblivion Community Center, which plumbed the same territory and whose appeal relied on the name recognition of two cult adjacent figures. Better Oblivion Community Center also highlights Bridgers’ ability to transcend her age group, which opens up doors into other, older audiences. To put it in perspective, the age gap between Bridgers and Berninger is only one year smaller than the age gap between Kurt Cobain and Lou Reed, and the equivalent of Bridgers reaching out to Fiona Apple to record a politically charged Christmas carol would’ve been Apple reaching out to someone like…I don’t know Kate Bush? Joni Mitchell? We’ve seen artists collaborate across generational lines before, sure, but not in the way Bridgers has done it — running the show and outshining the people she used to look up to, it feels unprecedented. It also appears to have brought her the attention and admiration of a number of high profile fans, like ESPN host Katie Nolan and Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang, the latter of whom affectionately parodied Bridgers’s emotional and current events focused songwriting style in a series of tweets. It’d probably be a bit of a stretch to declare Bridgers a “mainstream” artist, but she’s come about as close as any other member of her cohort to something like crossover success. Who knows, maybe if things were back to “normal” we’d be talking about Bridgers embarking on media dominating press tour and declaring 2020 the year “emo folk” broke. But for now, Bridgers will have to settle for plaudits from music critics, the media class, and teenagers on social media.

Punisher certainly warrants the attention. The word “powerful” gets thrown around so much and used in so many different contexts that it becomes meaningless, but it’s still the best way to describe this album. It’s not powerful in the sense that it’s big and overwhelming the way a great metal or hard rock record might be, and not powerful because the lyrics are over the top touching and emotional, even though they can be at times. It’s powerful in the sense that it etches itself onto your mind and soul, almost scarring the listener emotionally through a combination of sorrow, dread, and — oddly enough — hope. This is the kind of album that should come with a label warning you not to play it past midnight, not only because of the scary emotional places it will take you, but because Bridgers’ voice will float around your head like a ghost for hours, even days, after your listen to any one of these songs. It’d feel manipulative, maudlin, even, if it weren’t so effective and if it weren’t so haunting. 

Part of that is likely because so many of these songs do in fact feel like they’re coming from the other side. As gutting as Stranger in the Alps could be, there was still some comfort in knowing the Bridgers was just a girl with a guitar communicating her feelings through well executed but familiar rock and folk structures and sounds. On Punisher, Bridgers expands her sonic pallet, adding subtle electronic tweaks and fuller arrangements that help give her songs an air of the spectral and the otherworldly. The soft bass beat on “Garden Song” makes it sound like Bridgers’ muted arpeggios are signals coming from a far off place, and as Brigders takes us on a tour through a burned down house and a Kafkaesque dream, Jereon Vrijhoef joins in her in the chorus like a spirit mirroring her every move, the kind of thing you always feel is watching you but can never prove exists. That notion of having a silent, invisible listener is touched on again on “Chinese Satellite,” when Bridgers swears that she can “feel you through the walls”/”But that’s impossible.” That sense of finality — that our departed loved ones live on only in our minds, and not on any supernatural plain — makes Bridgers’ songs about the fragility of her subjects all the heavier.

“Chinese Satellite,” which feels like the evil twin of Owl City’s saccharine ode to bioluminescence “Fireflies,” also ends with Bridgers hoping that a tractor beam will shoot out of the night sky and whisk her away to a home that she never knew existed, expanding on themes of escape she began exploring with boygenius’s “Me and My Dog,” which also finds her abandoning Earth above a spaceship. This theme crops up in elsewhere on Punisher in more earthbound forms, like on the tender country track “Graceland Too,” which sees an institutionalized character impulsively hightail it to Memphis, and more metaphorically on “Halloween,” where Bridgers invites her lover to “be anything” before offering to be “whatever you want,” an escape from pre-determined and familiar identity on the one hand, and an escape from the pressure of defining yourself on the other. But this is still a sophomore album from a touring rock artist, which means it’s required by musician law to feature songs about fame and life on the road, the most notable being “Kyoto,” which, from a lyrical perspective, isn’t much different from the other baleful tracks on Punisher (“I’m gonna kill you” Bridgers tells a neglectful father figure “If you don’t beat me to it”), but kicks up the tempo and guitar distortion to something approximating a peppy rock song. Bridgers herself admitted that “Kyoto” was originally meant as a ballad but turned into an uptempo rock track because she was “sick of recording slow songs,” and that somewhat forced origin only hammers home that the kind of travel Bridgers makes a living doing is more of an apparent escape than an actual one; rather than facilitate an improved state of being, it only papers over our existing trauma and turmoil, and even introduces new opportunities for boredom and annoyance to creep in.

Bridgers doesn’t address her own fame as directly, preferring instead to view it through the lens of her own fandom of Elliott Smith on the album’s title track. Bridgers has explained that the “punisher” she refers to in the song is not Frank Castle’s alter ego, but rather a person who fawns over an artist so intensely that they begin to inadvertently “punish” the object of their affections. “What if I told you”/”I feel like I knew you?”/”But we never met” Bridgers imagines herself saying to the late singer/songwriter, who lived in the same Silver Lake neighborhood Bridgers now calls home. This idea of fan obsession punishing an artist is nothing new — Henry Rollins described it as “the brutality of mass acceptance” in regards to Kurt Cobain’s suicide — but Bridgers has observed that the deeply personal nature of her songwriting seems to provoke particular intense reaction from her fans, revealing in an interview that she once had to deal with someone literally chasing her after a gig while yelling “I would never chase you!” It’d be easy to delight in the irony of that if it also wasn’t also terrifying.

I’d like to think that I’d never chase Phoebe Bridgers down the street after a gig, but I can’t deny that I do feel a degree of personal connection with her. The odd thing about music fandom is that while listeners may build their most intense connections with artists as teenagers, the artists with whom they build those connections are rarely teenagers themselves. Instead, the music of their generation is defined to some extent by artists five, ten, even fifteen years older than they are. While I may have some things in common with Patrick Stickles, Jack White, and Craig Finn and respond to their music on a deep emotional level, they’re still 9, 19, and 23 years older than me, respectively. I love those men to death, but those generation gaps of varying sizes will always keep me from relating to them fully and totally; I may think they know some of what I’ve experienced, but not all of it — they’re heroes and idols maybe, but not peers. But Bridgers, who is only two and a half months younger than me, certainly feels like something of a peer, someone experiencing the world at the same stage of life I am. When Bridgers came forward with a number of other women and accused Ryan Adams of emotionally abusing and sexually harassing her, I reacted to it differently than any of the other litany of accusations made against powerful men over the past four years. I was appalled by all of these incidents of course, but something about this one felt more personal. It felt like I was watching a friend go through it, and like a microcosm of some great intergenerational struggle, of Millennials’ search for praise and validation from previous generations that have forced raw deal after raw deal upon us and blamed us for our own shortcomings. 

It wasn’t just that I felt like I knew Phoebe Bridgers — it felt like that she might know me too, and how many other depressed twenty-somethings and teenagers are going to feel the same thing after listening to Punisher? In some ways, it feels like Bridgers may have underestimated our own narcissism — because the truth of the matter is, fawning over an artist has never been about them, it’s always been about us fans, and what kind of unreciprocated support artists can give us. We’re not trying to thank the artist when we obsess over them to their face, we’re trying to win over their affection so that they’ll reciprocate it back to us. It’s a never-ending search for validation, because we want to be told by a person we look up to not that they’re just like us, but that we’re just like them. And if we’re just like them, then we’re as cool, talented, and attractive as they are. We become obsessed with them because we’re obsessed with ourselves.

Of course, it would be a lot easier for Bridgers to ward off this kind of unhealthy fan behavior if she weren’t so damn good at her job. Punisher isn’t a perfect album — “Halloween,” “Moon Song,” and even the title track feel like a bunch of well-written lyrics grasping in the dark for an engaging melody or hook, and unfortunately, they never find one — but its final four tracks are perfect slices of distinct indie rock that make the genre feel alive again. The dreamy but disillusioned “Savior Complex,” with its moonlit strings and beaming slide guitar, recalls Wilco at their most tender, while the intro to “ICU” feels like it could be a Modern Vampires of the City-era Vampire Weekend sample before unfolding into something that more closely recalls Better Oblivion Community Center. “Graceland Too” reclaims the banjo and fiddle from the Lumineers, Mumford and Sons, and every other boring “alternative folk” group of the 2010s, demonstrating how they can be deployed to heartbreaking and devastating effect and in a manner that suggests country may have been the first kind of emo music ever made. 

The closing track, “I Know the End,” is the coup de grâce. Beginning as a typical Bridgers song with shimmering guitar chords and lyrics about an unhealthy relationship, it’s made off kilter by the slightest touches of organ and droning keys, bringing back the haunted feel from some of the earlier songs. Eventually the tempo picks up and Bridgers takes us on a drive through rural California, calling out images of forlorn Americana (“A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall”/”Slot machines, fear of God”), impending doom (“Big bolts of lightning hanging low”), and paranoia (“Over the coast, everyone’s convinced”/”It’s a government drone or an alien spaceship”). She throws in some more references to becoming a ghost (“I’ll find a new place to be from”/”A haunted house, a picket fence”/”To float around with my ghost friends”), all while strings and horns surge around her, recalling Arcade Fire at their most grandiose. Eventually Bridgers embraces all this doom and decay, declaring “No, I’m not afraid, to disappear”/”The billboard said the end is near”/”I turned around, there was nothing there”/”Yeah, I guess the end is near” and the drums kick in and a gang of vocalists joins in, defiantly shouting the last four words of the song over and over, the most fatalistic yet triumphant coda since Titus Andronicus declared “It’s still us against them, and they’re winning” ten years ago. Eventually all the singers let loose one blood-curdling scream, the horns change to a more menacing key and the tempo begins in swing. Bridgers lets out another scream that seems to last for an impossible amount of time, sounding like she’s leading the now careening instrumental ensemble into battle. Eventually the music cuts out, and we just hear Bridgers continuing to scream, but hoarsely and more quietly than before, until her voice gives out with one final cough. 

“I Know the End” is a powerful statement, one that looks at humanity’s extinction with a nonchalance that informs a warrior-like bravery, before descending into chaos and acknowledging that, yes, actually, death and the end of the world are in fact quite scary. Bridgers’ screams feel like they could be the last recorded sound of the last living thing, an intelligent being reduced to its pure will to survive, gnashing away in the dark as forces beyond its control begin to overtake it. Or, it could be the singer’s reminder to us that, whatever power she holds over her listeners, whatever terrible feelings she’s able to replicate within them and whatever deliverance she provides us with, she is still just a person, not a god or a ghost or an alien, not a symbol for us to project ourselves onto. Just an actual, fragile human being who  happens to be good at putting music and words together. And maybe if we realize that about her, we’ll realize that about ourselves, too, and we’ll all chill out a little. I’m not so sure that it’ll work, but I guess it’s worth a try.