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Phoebe Bridgers' 'Punisher' in Retrospect

By Sarah Zimmer

(Photo by Olaf Grind)

“What if I told you? It feels like I know you? Though we never met...everyone knows you’re the way to my heart…” These lyrics rang out in the title track of Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher, a song about her beloved inspiration, Elliott Smith, who echoes in her as she charts her own course. A millennial icon, Bridgers creates music that has become a cultural phenomenon worthy of attention. Even a year later after its release, lyrics across songs such as “Punisher” have aged well into themselves. However, they now split between their original meaning as a love song to an artist the singer would have too much to say to if they ever met, and the meaning of the song for Bridger's listeners. Her expressed desire to imitate and be emotionally intimate with Smith, is familiar, as it's what many of Bridgers’ fans feel for her today.

It needs no explanation that Punisher met critical acclaim as Bridgers’ sophomore album, landing her a number of cover features, mentions on year end lists, TV spots like SNL and of course, a few Grammy nominations. These accolades are evidence enough that she will leave, and has perhaps already left, an indelible mark on the whole of indie music worldwide, but the growing cult of her music and persona speak just as loudly.

By the time her breakout single “Motion Sickness” launched in 2017, Bridgers was already on the map, helping her make a name for herself as an exceptional new Los Angeles songwriter. Her debut LP, Stranger in the Alps, was a folk album at heart, and the songs highlighted Bridgers’ quick witted, haunting voice and impactful, vulnerable lyricism. The album had a dull sadness that she asked us listeners to sit in while she held our hands. As shown throughout, when you listen to her music, you know she’s not bullshitting you, either. Her world-building that led to Punisher started with Alps — the types of relationships she explores, the themes she covers - what she wants and what she’s lost, as well as the way she arranges her songs and develops instrumentation for them. I always thought of Bridgers’ music as chaotic mundanity, reaching a sense of universality via intensely specific lyrics about painful memories or existential ideas. The most noticeable change between albums, however, is that Alps’ production is much sparser than Punisher’s. Videos across Bridgers’ Instagram give us a glimpse into the production process - such as her recording through a megaphone for her track ‘ICU’ or recording a male chorus for the closing track ‘I Know The End.’ She played with samples, uncommon recording techniques, and you can find a clever use of strings in almost every track. It shouldn’t go without stating that Bridgers often works with incredible producers Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, as well as collaborators Conor Oberst, and Marshall Vore, who are major players in her creative endeavors, not to mention her supergroup, boygenius, with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. Her tours have also been wildly successful, including her run with Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center, and all of her work has met critical acclaim. Thus, like her music, Bridgers has crept slowly into a spotlight that has turned into an intense heat. This past year, Bridgers became a household name.

Punisher, written and recorded before quarantine, is (to my understanding, based on my own listening as well as interviews from Bridgers) about finding solace in literal and figurative apocalyptic situations, and that said, the album hit listeners hard in a time when they needed it. I think for many, it felt like a gift — I mean, literally nobody put out a quarantine-themed album faster than Phoebe Bridgers. Her hinting-at-'metal' ending to the album ended up being a welcomed 30-second outlet to scream. Punisher has rarely been performed live due to the circumstances of this past year, and thus it lives in this liminal space, echoing in and out of people’s lives. Millennials and beyond have identified with the weaving between joy and pain, love and loss, and many of us felt the familiarity of the world crumbling around us. Our generation grew up and continues to grow through our 20s surrounded by tragedy and seemingly hopeless progress for change, but as Bridgers explores, we still grow flowers in wreckage.

Even a year later, listeners are still finding surprises and easter eggs in the album. If you’re not familiar with Bridgers’ work, it’s worth multiple listen to the album in order. Punisher’s impact may very well be a reminder for listeners to really listen. There are also instrumental themes more commonly found in classical music that come and go across the album. For example, between "Garden Song" and "I Know The End" is the same melody, slightly obscured. There is even an overture, which introduces the themes and mood of the album, and often reserved for operatic productions, titled "DVD Menu." The same characters of dogs, birds, skeletons, broken people and broken families occur with their own motifs throughout the album. Lyrically, Bridgers references these, like a dog and its prey (a bird) between "Moon Song" and "I Know the End." You could easily write a rock opera around this album based on this alone.

Punisher additionally has a sense of magical realism to it. So many of Bridgers' moments of storytelling are mundane — including anecdotes on going to the store, or being at a birthday party — but the existentialism of death and dying or dream worlds of her past creep in everywhere she turns. The track flow itself is evidence of this as well. For example, "Garden Song" revels in getting everything she’s worked for, but "Kyoto" questions what she really wants. At the end of that track she calls herself a liar, and then a “copycat killer” in "Punisher," but then reminds herself she can be anything in "Halloween." She closes the first half of the album struggling with belief and death in "Chinese Satellite." By this point in the album, you realize Bridgers is always talking to or about someone or something, and it's rarely herself, but "Chinese Satellite" stands alone in that it is mainly about Bridgers’ own psyche. The second half of the album opens with "Moon Song" followed by "Savior Complex" and "ICU," each exploring love between broken people. Ending with "I Know The End," Bridgers revels in the fight against what seems like neverending endings, and seeks a semblance of comfort in it.

Early on in the album cycle, "Kyoto" hit the mainstream, managing to an absolute bop while remaining lyrical seriousness and intensity. Through said track, Bridgers managed to both catapult upsetting storytelling into palatable form, and find ways to make rock and pop perhaps more substantive than it normally is. As I mentioned earlier, the album is a move from acoustic to more band and production involvement — from muddy bass drones, drowned and verbed vocals, unassuming but necessary drum lines, lush baritone guitar cadences, airy synths, and cleverly placed sound effects. In being not overproduced, but served by her choices, Punisher is deeply impactful and sonically interesting to listen to and fall in love with. Nothing on the album is filler, not a sound, not a lyric.

I think a lot of people remember their musical world before and after Punisher. For me, as an artist, I know it taught me to write vulnerably and straightforwardly. More and more artists are striving to do what she does, and she set a high standard for capturing people with her intimate lyrics and emotive voice alone. Her many virtual quarantine performances allowed her to explore performing and arranging the songs over and over in different ways, culminating in Copycat Killer which reimagines several of the tracks with just her voice and Rob Moose’s string arrangements. Even the album’s imagery is iconic, fueled by her commitment to the skeleton costume. Punisher’s accompanying music videos, (notably for "Savior Complex" and "I Know The End"), support the album’s beauty and wit as well.

Phoebe Bridgers’ music is a genre unto itself, coined as ‘sad girl’ music, but her specific sound is now being chased by many new singer-songwriters, tik tok musicians, and more. Bridgers, as well as her peers Bakerand Dacus (amongst others), follow in the great tradition of female singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell or Kate Bush, bringing back the true impact of standing in one’s power of raw talent and emotion, undressed, and unpretty. More and more women emerge beside them, motivated by the ability to speak one’s truth no matter how fucked up it may be. Many fans recently spoke with GrammyU about Bridgers’ impact on their own healing process or mental health journey. Her own vulnerability about her depression, or alcoholic father, has struck a chord with a fan base composed of many who deal with the same issues.

Since Punisher, Bridgers’ following has only grown. She’s since collaborated with such greats as Jackson Browne, Paul McCartney, Philip Glass, Kid Cudi, Lorde, and more. She has stayed true to her work with her peers, producing Christian Lee Hutson’s debut album, Beginners, very much in the style of Stranger in the Alps, or singing on Charlie Hickey’s debut EP, Count the Stairs. I look forward to seeing her seep into more of society. Not only did Punisher open doors for bigger collaborations, it coincided with Bridgers starting her own label under Dead Oceans, Saddest Factory. In general, Bridgers is one of many celebrities that choose to engage with political and social issues, and her commitment to supporting marginalized voices in the industry was a focal point of her announcement of her label. Her first signee was Claud, and most recently she signed MUNA — both artists are queer, and their signing to this label was certainly a boost in visibility and another spoke on Bridgers’ sphere of influence. She is inarguably famous now, too: her vinyl variants are resold at massive prices, she has her own #tiktok hashtag and trends, and her vulnerability has allowed fans access into her life and lore. More and more Phoebe Bridgers stan accounts have popped up, and despite the toxicity of stan culture, this is an example of her growing popularity and impact as an artist and person. Her fashion sense mirrors her music, both dark and clever, wielding between the outlandish and the mundane.

Punisher’s birthday is a reminder of the power of blunt storytelling and what happens when music coincides with personal and national events. The impact in Bridgers’ life and career may be obvious, but the impact on fans and her impact on indie music and the industry as a whole is seen in glimpses day after day. The rest of us who dragged her album through the intenseness of this year, are likely returning to it each day - finding new moments and meanings, trying to make sense of both the cruelty and magic of this world - and waiting for Bridgers’ next move. One thing is for sure: her tour will sell out fast, and breathe new life into an album about collapse.


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