If you are my friend or just follow my social media accounts, reading a review of Phoebe Bridgers’ latest album should not come as a surprise to you. Indeed, I have been raving and talking about this record for months now, for its unique take on melodies, lyrics, visuals, and musicality. With its many genre-defying elements, let us explore the horror and genius behind Punisher.
The 18th of June 2020 saw the release of Bridgers’ second LP Punisher, that received widespread critical acclaim, notably an excellent 90% Metacritic rating. The eleven-track album is performed, written, and co-produced by the artist herself, who is even credited for some instruments. Qualified as indie-rock and emo-folk, this cohesive body of work is centered around themes of depression, loss, grief, disassociation, and self-reflection, explored through poignant lyrics, interesting imagery, dark humor, and an eerie atmosphere grasping the entire record through many factors.
Production is the main factor corroborating this unsettling vibe, already emanating from the cover art itself, with its dark shades of purple and blue, and Phoebe’s haunting silhouette. An interesting element is the use of natural sounds like birds chirping, sampled as slight details in the background of some tracks. Vocally, the artist doubles and triples her vocal layers, sometimes with more baritone melodies or minor arpeggios, all clear over muffled instrumentals. Moreover, the instruments used are as eclectic as the album is genre-defying: between traditional rock instruments like the electric guitar and drum riffs (“Kyoto”, “I Know the End”), and more indie ones like the mellotron and the acoustic guitar (“Halloween”, “Savior Complex”), the listener explores heterogenous sounds that all stay consistent with the same narrative. These three elements create a hollow and dark sound, that resonates perfectly with the poetic lyrics the singer is enunciating.
Bridgers uses simple words to create unique imagery relating her emotions and torments. She uses a depressive vernacular and repetitions to accept a dooming, sad idea: “But you had to go / I know, I know, I know / Like a wave that crashed and melted on the shore”. However, the lyrical nod that I found the most interesting is the use of dark humor, seemingly her way to cope with her trauma: “I used to joke that if they woke you up / somebody better be dying”. Such creepy yet sardonic imagery impeccably settles an unnerving mood, perfect for the songwriter to lay down her ideas on dissociation, inner demons, self-destruction and depression, through metaphorical references of nature, drugs, nostalgic elements of a modern society and more personal memories.
With these foundations, we hear Phoebe gradually construct her musical microcosm. The record starts with “DVD Menu”, a dooming instrumental opening for “Garden Song” and “Kyoto”, two tracks that perfectly embody the ongoing paradox of Punisher, with their up-beat instrumentals accompanied with violent and melancholic lyrics. The stand-out track is definitely the conclusion of the album, “I Know the End”: the nearly six-minute long song is a slow progression from a mellow introduction with apocalyptic themes, to a pure rock metal showoff of guitar riffs and drumming madness, with the artist screaming her lungs out to a melody that echoes with the first track, hence going full circle and successfully grasping the work.
The best way to summarize Punisher is “a night trip into an emo purple vast desert”. The contradictions Bridgers uses attracted me, between comedic and tragic, metaphorical and plain, grotesque and subtle. Hopefully, the genius behind this record will be recognized on more refined platforms, as the artist and her album are nominated for four Grammys: can Bridgers prove herself as 2021’s Best New Artist?