by Dustin Brewer
Phoebe Bridgers’ second album is equal parts warm & haunting, Dustin sits down and tries to put into words what makes the album essential listening.
I must admit, the first time I heard of Phoebe Bridgers was as one half of Better Oblivion Community Center alongside Bright Eyes head-honcho Conor Oberst. The duo’s self-titled debut album stayed in pretty constant rotation for me all year and was easily one of the best, and my favorite, albums of the year. “Punisher,” Bridgers’ second solo album, following 2017’s debut “Stranger in the Alps” is certainly going to help her find the ears of many more new listeners. It also features Bridgers as a more self-assured and confident songwriter just two years removed from her first record.
“Punisher” finds itself released at a very interesting time to be a musician: the COVID-19 pandemic has shut down the world and brought touring musicians to a complete hault. Many have turned to other avenues (Twitch, Instagram live, YouTube and other streaming methods) as a means to stay connected with fans and in some instances, make sure they can continue to support their families. While Bridgers won’t be able to tour on the album for the considerable future, she’s made not only one of the best second-albums by an artist in recent years but has staked her claim to one of the most unique voices in the world of indie rock.
The album opens with “DVD Menu”, a short little instrumental interlude that blends seamless into the album’s lead single, “Garden Party.” Bridgers wit is on full display throughout the song with lines like, “And when your skinhead neighbor goes missing / I’ll plant a garden in the yard.” Her voice is so delicate that it’s almost easy to miss lines like that peppered throughout the album, making repeat listenings absolutely mandatory to catch everything that she and her producers, Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, have put together.
“Kyoto” is arguably the most upbeat song on the album from a sonic standpoint but the lyrics are decisively bleak, touching on her own imposter syndrome.
“This song is about being on tour and hating tour, and then being home and hating home. I just always want to be where I’m not.”
– Phoebe Bridgers on the meaning behind the song “Kyoto.”
The album’s title track is also a searing look inwards that is Trojan Horse’d in as a haunting ballad that finds Bridgers wondering if she were to meet her heroes, would she be the type of fan that drives them crazy.
These types of dualities are all throughout the album and make it such a unique listening experience no matter how many times you’ve played it through. This is where her confidence is so evident. When asked by UPROXX about feeling nervous about making a second album, her response was very telling:
“I made the whole record knowing that people were going to hear it. And I made the first record being like, “I wonder if I’m going to have to get a day job after this.”
-Phoebe Bridgers to UPROXX on the experience of making “Punisher.”
As the album hits its’ second half, Bridgers writing only gets bolder. Lines like “We hate ‘Tears in Heaven’ / But it’s sad that his baby died” in “Moon Song” (taking a shot at Eric Clapton, who she’s been very vocal in her dislike about) and “I used to light you up / Now I can’t even get you to play the drums / Cause I don’t know what I want / Until I f*** it up” in “I See You” showcase just how far she’s admittedly grown in confidence in her songwriting abilities:
“As I started writing better songs, I just got more comfortable with it.”
-Bridgers on the “Punisher” writing process.
Album closer “I Know the End” finds her joined by her Better Oblivion Community Center bandmate Conor Oberst for a haunting, nearly six-minute blend of genres all about her view on the end of the world. Like the rest of the album, it begins as a slow burn with her soft vocals as it builds and builds until it crescendos into a big, loud outro with her just wailing at the top of the longs. After all the emotions laid out so bare throughout the rest of the album, it’s impossible to not want to scream along. And that’s where the true genius of everything lies: you’re pulled in by her unique view and honest writing and by the time its’ all said and done, you feel the same pent up frustrations that you absolutely need to get out before you burst.
If you’re working or trying to multitask when you queue this album up, be prepared to either rewind songs a thousand times or to ignore your work altogether as you get fully engrossed and try to catch everything being thrown at you. Songs about insecurities and bouts with depression may sound like tried & true musical cliches, and they can be if not for the sincerity that you feel in every painstaking note. Press play and let yourself get pulled into the world that’s being built before you, it may be hers but by the time it’s all over, it’s probably going to feel a lot like yours too.
Notable Tracks: Kyoto, Punisher, Moon Song, I Know the End
Dustin Brewer is Editor-in-Chief at hefferbrew.com. You can follow him on Twitter here, let us know your favorite song on the album and what music we should be listening to/reviewing next.