Stemming from her debut album, ‘Stranger in the Alps,’ and following its success with projects as part of collaborative musical group ‘boygenius’ and an album in conjunction with Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, Phoebe Bridgers has shown to be one of the best songwriters in music today with emotionally potent, nuanced, and beautifully tragic lyricism. This style of writing along with the addition of frequent multi-tracked vocals draws some notable inspiration from the late Elliott Smith whom she considers herself a superfan of, which she makes all the more evident in the title track, ‘Punisher,’ with lyrics directly tributed to him. While proudly wearing her influences on her sleeve throughout this album, Bridgers shows the world why she is more than “a copycat killer with a chemical cut,” with indirect, but incredibly personal details weaved throughout the album touching on themes of her personal nightmares on the track on ‘Garden Song,’ to relationships on various tracks like ‘Moon Song’ and ‘I See You.’
Phoebe presents these topics in an engaging manner through solid, although somewhat typical instrumentals. The sonic palette of Punisher is fairly minimal and isn’t the most varied, but is used very appropriately alongside Phoebe’s feathery vocals to hit listeners with stunning highlights on a few moments on the album on songs like ‘Halloween’ where Phoebe delivers morbid (and kind of humorous) lyrics about masking her problems on Halloween night where they “can be anything,” as her refrain harmonizes with Conor Oberst’s vocals at the end over distant timpanis and piano, continually plucked strings, and a variety of additional, subtle instrumental additions looming in the mix to create a dark athmosphere that feels like the sonic embodiment of a lonely Halloween night. Later on, we get another one of these immaculately produced tracks in ‘Savior Complex,’ with slowly-swirling strings enveloping across Bridgers’ vocals anytime she reaches a vocal climax, backed by light drum kicks and a steady guitar melody, with the song bolstered among some of the best of the album by virtue of the end in where the instrumental as a whole gets louder, giving those strings the prominence they deserve, holding out through the end as the sound disintegrates to silence. The closing track, ‘I Know the End,’ gives the album a mountainous climax stretching throughout the last few minutes of the album, giving Punisher its much needed emotional release with soaring horns, stadium-sized drums, and literal screaming to deliver pure intensity on this epic finale.
As amazing as these moments may be, Punisher grants its true rewards to attentive listening given the care that Phoebe Bridgers puts into her lyrics, making it evident as to why she is worthy of the aforementioned Elliott Smith comparisons . Referencing herself as a “punisher” with this album’s title, Bridgers indulges heavily into her nightmares and broken relationships, describing the themes of Punisher as “crying” and feeling “numb” from an interview with Rolling Stone, delivering theses very personal ideas in a very creative and dark way. For example, Moon Song has Phoebe displaying a general theme of a lack of complete emotional intimacy in a relationship with an amazing second verse stating “you couldn’t have, stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody, who loves you more, so I will wait for the next time you want me, like a dog with a bird at your door.” Another one of my favorite instances of her incredible use of imagery comes on another relationship-centered track on “I See You,” as she bluntly describes how she sees her drummer and ex-boyfriend, Marshall Vore’s flaws with the lyrics, “If you’re a work of art, I’m standing too close, I can see the brush strokes, I hate your mom.” Track after track, Punisher is filled with evocative writing that puts it on top of nearly any other project giving this level of introspection.
Having already released 4 major projects since late 2017, Phoebe Bridgers is proving to be among the best songwriters today as she builds toward her excellent catalog as a 25 year old that can only grow bigger from here. The melancholic and bittersweet vocal performances, use of musical inspirations, and powerful emotional chord struck with her masterful use of words makes Punisher her best project yet, and should not by any means be looked over as she cements herself among the best in music, period.
Recommended If You Like: Elliott Smith, Julien Baker, Sharon Van Etten
Recommended Tracks: Kyoto (2), Halloween (5), Moon Song (7), Savior Complex (8), ICU (9)
Do Not Play: N/a
Written by Fernando Claudio-Lopez on 07/08/2020