Punisher is heavy and haunted, but Phoebe Bridgers’ music is more alive than ever. The Californian singer-songwriter has released her second full length album, and it’s otherworldly right down to its cosmic album art. Bridgers emerges more experimental than before—she’s also bolder, louder, angrier. Debut album Stranger in the Alps was beautifully tender, but here, Bridgers seems to have found her own sound.
The instrumental opener ‘DVD Menu’ sets an ominous tone, with atmospheric strings that lead us into single ‘Garden Song’. Vivid, nightmarish images swirl and contort in ‘Garden Song’, the next picture developing before you have time to process the last. ‘The doctor put her hands over my liver, she told me my resentments getting smaller’, Bridgers deadpans.
The album is full of dark revelations where you least except them. ‘Kyoto’ begins soft and buoyant, while Bright Eyes’ Nathaniel Walcott provides intermittent horns across the hook. But the subject is anything but carefree. It feels like Bridgers is speeding down the neon Japanese highways, struggling to match that alienating world with home through only a payphone connection to her undependable father. Bridgers has a way of taking an over-used phrase and twisting it, reforming it into something distorted and surprising. It’s easy to miss the humour she threads through her lyrics if you’re not listening hard enough, but amongst the darkness she is grinning slyly.
The dimness that permeates throughout makes ‘Punisher’ feel like it should have been an Autumn release; the track ‘Halloween’ is slow and shadowy, with Conor Oberst’s soft vocals joining Bridgers on the outro (the two make up the duo of Better Oblivion Community Centre). ‘Halloween’ is gorgeous, if harrowing. Bridgers can make a scorching June day drop suddenly in temperature, as she croons “but I can count on you to tell me the truth, when you’ve been drinking and you’re wearing a mask.”
Herself a co-producer on this album, Bridgers soundscape is more eclectic, more her own, than we’ve seen in previous projects. She is far away from her ‘Killer’ EP, released on Ryan Adam’s label Pax-Am back in 2015: Bridgers would, two years later, come forwards about her own experience of Adam’s sexual manipulation, amongst numerous other female artists in the industry. It’s more than a small triumph to see such a development.
The gentle folk sound familiar to ‘Stranger in the Alps’ shows its face again in tracks like ‘Graceland Too’, featuring fellow boygenius member Julien Baker. But Bridgers, managing to subvert expectations again, brings it all up a notch again on the closing track ‘I Know The End’. It starts softly, almost hopelessly, but as the track builds, and Bridgers begins to rifle through sporadic references to American culture and conspiracies, the closing song reaches a cacophonic burst of drums, horns, and a confused layering of vocals that near screaming. Instead of dwindling to nothing, the sense of frustration that rears its head throughout the album, comes up triumphant from the water. Punisher is a remarkable album, that brings you something new each time you come back to listen again.