Music Reviews

The Hurt on Phoebe Bridgers’ PUNISHER Is Suspiciously Healing

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Genre: Folk, Indie Pop

Favorite Tracks: “Punisher,” “Moon Song,” “Savior Complex,” “I Know the End,” “ICU”

The phrase “long awaited,” with regards to PUNISHER, is both unbelievably underwhelming and understated. Although she has been consistently putting out work with supergroups boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center (not to mention featuring on various tracks from the 1975), there was still a desperate cry online for all things solo Bridgers. That excitement seems to stem from two separate places: an insatiable bloodlust for musicians to produce content, devoid of their artistic integrity or not, and a recognition of kinship, and therefore understanding, based on inferred similar experiences. Bridgers, in my own specific experience, has said things in all of her work that makes crying on I-5 at 1 A.M.. feel like the only copacetic treatment. She is completely attuned to lessons from her past, and while some may be steeped in bitterness and cynicism they always feel refreshing—as if she has put a nanobot in your head, knowing exactly what you need.

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PUNISHER is resonant of horror stories online, the kind exuding feelings we know exist and we need to acknowledge, but how? As Bridgers says, “When a relationship ends, we would rather dance with a corpse than say it’s dead.” Every track becomes another dance, a different break of emotional stasis, some with different cadavers, others with the same—ironically similar to the imagery shown in her “Smoke Signals” music video. Yet PUNISHER is irrefutable development, a work where Bridgers has upgraded her setting to a macabre Jane Austen ballroom.

STRANGER IN THE ALPS had both “Funeral” and “Scott Street,” which featured innovative composition of layered instrumentals, vocal distortion, and even the occasional helicopter sound, but PUNISHER is an augmentation of her older work. There’s no better testament to the growth of her production than the album’s conceptional opener “DVD Menu,” showcasing not only her predilection for orchestral sonics but the careful curation of her ear. Clearly her time operating with collaborators has had an influence on her artistry as much as her psyche. Bridgers shows across the album that composition is just as important for the efficacy of evocation as her notable lyrics are—as a fateful parallel, “I Know the End,” the bookend to “DVD Menu,” winds soloing, theremin, and 10 seconds of echoing scream as its coda.

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Bridgers’ lyrics are, as they have always been, impeccable. She’s never been a disseminated voice—she knows what’s happening in the world around her, what she wants to say, and what resonates with her audience (check her Twitter). PUNISHER has a very specific through line, and one that’s not new to her current work: dreams. “All the bad dreams that you hide / Show me yours, I’ll show you mine.” Bridgers uses dreams as a metaphor for skeletons in the closet on “Savior Complex,” illustrating that dreams are not only important but indicative of who we are—our demented subconscious will reveal all. She takes it a step further on “Moon Song,” articulating a vivid depiction of a forbidden love in what’s arguably a very mundane situation. “Now I’m dreaming / And you’re singing at my birthday / I’ve never seen you smiling so big.” Yet the banality seems to fuel Bridgers’ hypothesis on the importance of those dreams, discovering that whether it’s a seemingly drab experience or one that is steeped in the morose, these are the experiences to transcribe into our art. For Phoebe Bridgers, dreams provide more clarity on her life than reality itself.

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Regardless of what’s being highlighted throughout this recent album cycle, production, lyrics, or her incredible Playboy interview, PUNISHER feels like an invaluable feat. Bridgers has shown how much she’s learned in the past three years, both musically and personally, while also reminding us she is still growing. There’s not any aphorism or witty comeback I can tout to sum up how seminal this album is; without any formaldehyde, she traipses from foxtrot to waltz trying to find an answer for reality. In Bridgers’ exploits, she has managed to excavate some lines that plunge so deep, you’ll wonder who installed the RING device inside your skull.

Jesse Herb
Jesse Herb acts as a contributor for Merry-Go-Round to finally show she deserves a Thrasher hoodie. She needs to brush her teeth, gags at the phrase “old soul,” and has made it her life’s work to watch all of Ellen Page’s filmography.

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