Title: Punisher

Artist: Phoebe Bridgers
Label: Dead Oceans
Genre: Singer/Songwriter / Indie Folk
Released: 18 June 2020




“The billboard said ‘The End Is Near’

I turned around, there was nothing there

Yeah, I guess the end is here”

Every now and then there’s an album cover that really sticks out for one reason or another. I remember seeing the artwork for Everything Everything’s “Get to Heaven” for the first time and immediately listening to it solely based on the cover alone. Before streaming services and the internet made music such an abundant and accessible medium, I imagine that a lot of people would have made judgements similar to this all the time while browsing in record stores. These days it isn’t quite as important, since the ease-of-access to just listen to whatever music at whatever time makes artwork less of a marketing technique and more a supplement to the music itself.

In the case of “Get to Heaven”, which is now one of my favourite albums of the last decade, my impulse-listen certainly paid off. It also paid off for me when I decided to listen to Phoebe Bridgers’ new album “Punisher”, the cover of which instantly drew me in. And although this might seem like a strange tangent upon which to start a review, I think the album’s artwork does the perfect job of resembling the imagery and emotion that this album evokes. It’s simple but effective, much like the music on “Punisher”. And even though this is an album review and not an album-cover review, it’s important to address how well the two complement each other.

And much like the artwork had an evidently profound effect on me, so did the album itself. “Punisher” is an extremely intimate listen, both musically and lyrically. Phoebe Bridgers’ voice is soft and confiding, accompanied with beautifully composed instrumentals throughout. The first time I listened to this was in the car on the way to work. Even though I enjoyed that experience, this is definitely an album that’s designed to be listened to with headphones. There’s such a profound sense of intimacy that comes with Phoebe’s voice that listening to it through speakers really doesn’t do it justice. It’s also subtly arranged, creating a gorgeous and understated soundscape, while also emphasizing one of the album’s main strengths: its lyrics.

Phoebe’s writing abilities on this album are fantastic. She has an excellent way of creating imagery through her lyrics, which are consistently built upon throughout the album. For example, in the track ‘Moon Song’ she uses the image of a dog bringing a dead bird to its owner as a metaphor for her attempt to provide love to someone who has no interest, or is even possibly disgusted by the gesture.

“So I will wait for the next time you want me

Like a dog with a bird at your door”

“When you saw the dead little bird

You started crying

But you know the killer doesn't understand”

She returns to this image in the last track on the album, ‘I Know the End’, where she uses the metaphor to describe an ex-lover who has returned. It connects these two moments, suggesting that this could possibly be the same person. And like much of the lyrical content on the album, it’s such a potent use of symbolism.

“But you come back with gravity

And when I call, you come home

A bird in your teeth”

A comparison that’s been made on Bridgers’ writing style is the heavy influence it takes from Elliott Smith, and she actually addresses this several times on the album herself. This is most notable in the title track ‘Punisher’, which is actually dedicated to the late singer/songwriter. She discusses her admiration for Smith, and recognition of the influence that he’s had on her life and music. In the past she’s even been criticized for sounding too similar to Smith, but I think to suggest that would be dismissing the immense creativity that Bridgers displays on this album. The previous song ‘Kyoto’ demonstrates some of “Punisher’s” variety, with a much more upbeat and catchy tone than anything else on the album. It’s one of the only tracks backed by a drumbeat, and uses a larger palette of instruments, particularly horns, to really contrast with the rest of the album.

‘Halloween’ is a mellow track which gives some context to the album’s artwork. It describes a dying relationship, with Bridgers pleading to her partner to simply pretend things are fine between them for one night.

“Baby, it's Halloween

And we can be anything

Oh, come on, man

We can be anything”

The question she raises in the song’s chorus is answered by the cover art. Bridgers stands completely alone in the middle of the night staring up at the stars in a skeleton costume. It’s something that’s never explicitly addressed in the narrative of the song, but the artwork speaks completely for itself.

The album art is also reminiscent of the next track, ‘Chinese Satellite’. In this song Bridgers talks about her lack of faith, despite wishing she could believe in a higher power. As she looks into the night sky it’s completely starless, so she wishes upon a Chinese satellite instead; something completely artificial which she knows holds no deeper meaning. And although she’s aware of this, she still wishes she had some sense of faith: that existence isn’t finite and she’ll be re-united with her loved ones when she dies.

“Because I think when you're gone, it's forever

But you know I'd stand on the corner

Embarrassed with a picket sign

If it meant I would see you when I die”

“Punisher” is extremely solid the entire way through, and the next stretch of tracks from ‘Saviour Complex’ to ‘Graceland Too’ are all really good, especially the vibrant ‘ICU’. On top of this, the album sticks the landing perfectly with the absolutely gorgeous ‘I Know the End’. This final track has an incredible build-up leading to its conclusion, which is a powerful moment that feels perfectly earned after such a slow-burn of an album. It’s possibly the best moment on “Punisher”, and is a fitting end to such an excellent album.

Phoebe Bridgers is an extremely talented songwriter, and I’m so glad that the album artwork drew me into listening to this. “Punisher” is wonderful. It’s subtly put together, and the song-writing and composition sounds so mature despite only being her sophomore record. The imagery Bridgers creates is evocative and beautiful, and the music breathes life through every second of this album. I like “Punisher” more and more each time I listen to it, and it’s certainly been one of the highlight albums of the year so far. I can’t wait to hear what she has planned for the years ahead.

“But I feel something when I see you now

I feel something”

Reviewed by Layton Bryce - 09/07/20