Culture  Phoebe Bridgers’ Strange New World

A review of Punisher

Right now, the world feels apocalyptic. It’s with this feeling that American singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers begins Punisher, her emo-folk sophomore album. Its initial track, “DVD Menu,” establishes the mood with a set of hollow strings and a menacing guitar melody. The album then builds on this atmosphere by exploring the tensions between the past and the future, the familiar and the strange, and between devotion and destruction. Bridgers both celebrates these tensions and struggles with them, as she attempts to find hope within the chaos of her strange new world.

Punisher is a reminder that the past will haunt us anywhere we go. In “Garden Song,” Bridgers returns to familiar corridors and fences, and realizes that she’s changed for the better. But in the song’s final chorus, she sings: “I don’t know how, but I’m taller / It must be something in the water,” only to declare that “I get everything I want / I have everything I wanted.” Bridgers’ final words are undercut by a nostalgia for all that she’s “wanted” – as far as she looks forward, she is pulled back, left wanting something else. In the more upbeat  “Kyoto,” Bridgers considers the familiarity of her own feelings with the strangeness of being in a new city. Reflecting on her relationship with her father (“And you wrote me a letter / But I don’t have to read it”) during her “day off in Kyoto,” Bridgers confesses her hesitation about leaving her ghosts behind: “I wanted to see the world / Then I flew over the ocean / And I changed my mind.” And on the final chorus of “Chinese Satellite,” Bridgers pleads: “I want to believe / that if I go outside I’ll see a tractor beam / coming to take me to where I’m from / I want to go home.” Punisher reveals to its listeners an uncanny world, one that remains haunted with Bridgers’ desire to be home  and  elsewhere, all at once. 

In this new world, all intimacies become tinged with a sly fatalism, as Bridgers admits on “ICU:” “I’ve been playing dead / my whole life / and I get this feeling / whenever I feel good / it’ll be the last time.” This fatalism also seeps through “Halloween,” where Bridgers quietly recalls the destructiveness of an asymmetrical relationship: “Always surprised by what I’d do for love / Some things I’d never expect / They killed a fan down by the stadium / Was only visiting, they beat him to death.” And yet, in “Moon Song,” Bridgers wholeheartedly gives in to her devotion and the inevitability of her self-destruction, over the gentle strumming of a guitar: “So I will wait for the next time you want me / like a dog with a bird at your door.” Amid all the despair, Punisher never feels hopeless. Bridgers maintains a playful self-awareness; she pokes fun at her own fatal surrender to devotion in the ballad “Savior Complex,” calling it an “emotional affair” and “overly sincere.” And that’s what makes it possible for Bridgers to find small moments of wonder in this world, suggesting that catching a glimpse of a star in the night sky is worth the pain of looking up.

Blending the familiar with the strange, and devotion with destruction, Punisher provides no easy resolve for these tensions—precisely because there are none. The album commits itself to these tensions because it is in Bridgers’ naive commitment to devotion that she finds a semblance of hope. In the album’s final track, “I Know the End,” Bridgers revels in the apocalypse: “Over the coast, everyone’s convinced / It’s a government drone or an alien spaceship / […] A haunted house with a picket fence / To float around and ghost my friends / No, I’m not afraid to disappear / The billboard said the end is near.” As the music swells in the song’s outro, the instrumentation explodes: new voices join in, the percussion gets louder, and Bridgers gives a blood-curdling scream. Yeah, I guess the end is here.