Haunted: A Review of Phoebe Bridgers' New Album, Punisher

The cover art of Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore album shows the 25-year old standing alone in the desert against a backdrop of strange rock structures, looking up at the night sky, wearing a skeleton suit and bathed in source-less, almost extraterrestrial red light. The spacey, unfathomable image is simultaneously ancient and futuristic, and sets the tone for the album itself, a surrealist, haunting, and sonically experimental piece of art which might possibly break your heart even more than her first album.
Bridgers’ music has always had an almost saccharine level of melody akin to the Beatles, if the Beatles only wrote heartbreakingly sad songs. The phrase “Overly sincere” from “Savior Complex” kind of sums it up. The sadness might seem overdone, but once you embrace it, it’s an absolutely stunning space to inhabit.
I found Stranger in the Alps, Bridgers’ first album, too uniform for every individual song to stand out. Each song is beautiful, both melodically and lyrically, and there are some more up- tempo songs like “Motion Sickness” and “Scott Street” (hardly up-tempo, to be honest), but they are a bit too uniform. Individual songs might stand out more on an album that wasn’t solely acoustic rock. Stranger in the Alps lacks enough variety in melody and song structure to pull you in in a way that some of Bridgers’ indie rock contemporaries and self-stated influences, like Alex G and Mitski, seem to have a natural knack for. But on Punisher, the songs take on more distinct shapes and draw from a much wider range of genres, from bluegrass to emo pop punk to psych rock. You can hear influences, like her all-time musical hero Elliott Smith, as well as others as wide-ranging as Billie Eilish, the Chicks (formerly Dixie Chicks), Avril Lavigne, Soccer Mommy, and Neil Young. Sonically, it is a louder album. Drums are used frequently, and other instruments are featured, including horns, an 80’s glam metal guitar effect, and a mandolin, courtesy of Julien Baker. And yet, at its core, Punisher is still a super indie record. The instrument use is carefully crafted and deliberate, and there are not guitar solos, jams, or anything resembling blues-based rock. It fully embraces pop songwriting, but with a rock aesthetic.
Bridgers brings in a fantastic group of collaborators and co-songwriters to the album, including Connor Oberst, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Christian Lee Hutson and Blake Mills. (Side note, please do yourself a favor and listen to Christian Lee Hutson’s magical debut album Beginners, a
modern folk-rock classic; every song is gorgeous and will stick in your brain for days.) Lyrically and sonically, the album will haunt you. It is full of surrealist and sublime imagery like “The doctor put her hands over my liver/She told me my resentment’s getting smaller,” and “now my feet can’t touch the bottom of you.” The lyrics are also undeniably creepy, filled with ghosts, nightmares, people wearing masks, metaphorical vampires, and body parts. In a Pitchfork interview, Bridgers described ten things which influenced the album, and they include the “Harry Potter: A History of Magic” exhibit at the British Library, the My Favorite Murder podcast, the Synanon cult, and Halloween. To add to the haunting quality of this music, the album features an introduction by short story writer, essayist and critic Carmen Maria Machado, called “Yesterday, Tomorrow.” Machado, who I’ve admired since reading her fantastic magical realism short story collection “Her Body and Other Parties,” once again shows her skill at crafting unforgettable, scary yet stunning lines. She writes about a person, presumably Phoebe, “Her dog is buried in the garden along the eastern wall; sometimes, she wonders if the ground will bloom half-a-dozen of him under a certain kind of moon.” I wish I could quote the whole essay because it is fantastic, but here are some particularly stunning lines which set the scene for Bridgers’ poetic masterpiece:

“The house is haunted…it is not a house where someone is punished, or a house where someone might be punished, but a house that replaces punishment; instead of feeling guilt or regret you must play quietly in any corner, and eventually the emotion will resolve itself.”
“Everyone knows the world is over…they can see it in the streets…but most
importantly they feel it among themselves.”
“She tells her friends: ‘I’m not afraid to disappear.’ Someone laughs. Then, someone
else opens their mouth, and something else climbs out.”

And Bridgers herself is a wondrous poet. Every line of the album is worth reading as well as
listening to. I will discuss some of her most singular lines as I do a track-by-track analysis.
1.“DVD Menu,” the instrumental opener, sets the soundscape for the rest of the album with its weird space noises and melancholy, wailing violins. It also includes an unnerving melodic theme which is repeated in the final song, “I Know the End.”
2.“Garden Song” was hard to get into at first. It’s  been described by other reviewers as having a
deliberately muddy production. There’s a monstrous, very low voice overdubbed over Phoebe’s sharp and clear voice, like her subconscious talking to her. The language in this song is concerned with looking at things through a dreamlike state. The song describes watching her life pass by her: “When I grow up I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life / And it’s gonna
be just like my recurring dream / I’m at the movies I don’t remember what I’m seeing.” In the music video, she gets high in her bedroom, and this seems to hint at the general feeling of fleeting, surreal experiences passing by and not being able to capture or keep them.
3.“Kyoto” is a gorgeous, catchy, and perhaps the most post pop punk song on the record, both musically, with its simple, repeating chord progression and wailing lines like, “I want to kill you, if you don’t beat me to it,” but also thematically, in its being about the narrator’s difficult relationship with an alcoholic father and lingering angst of her teenage years with him. Sure, it’s predictably emo in some ways, but it’s also refreshing, full of beautifully poetic lines like, “Park at the Goodwill and stare at the chemtrails with my little brother” that are visceral and hit really hard. It’s also the first song on the record of many where Bridgers repeats a statement over and over at the end of her song, in this case, “I’m a liar, who lied.”
4.“Punisher,” allegedly about Bridgers’ obsession with Elliott Smith, features overlaid vocals as
a tribute to her all-time favorite artists’ own musical style, against a subtle background of sound.
It’s an eerie, ghostly fairytale of a song, with lines like, “When the speed kicks in/I go to the store
for nothing/And walk right by/The house where you lived with Snow White,” and in which Phoebe refers to herself as a “copycat killer with a chemical cut.”
5.“Halloween” is similar in sound to “Punisher.” It again has the stripped back instrumental feel, but you can also tell that the sound was intentionally crafted through heavy production and combining of many different instruments. It features mysterious guitar and bass in a quiet soundscape,  allowing the vocals to take center stage. There is a longing quality to the lyrics, as if the narrator knows that a relationship is ending but wants to dress up and pretend because it’s Halloween, with the line at the end, “I’ll be whatever you want” repeated over and over. There’s a sinister, unhealthy feeling underlying the beauty of Phoebe’s voice.
6.“Chinese Satellite” builds like a classic pop song and features an epic 80s guitar sound. It reminds me a lot of Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail, but I would imagine either of them playing it in a much louder way with a full band. Phoebe deliberately has the strumming very quiet in the beginning, and then it becomes louder, embracing full electronic pop towards the end. This song is one of the most surrealist, with lyrics like, “You were screaming at the evangelicals/They were screaming right back from what I remember/When you said I will never be your vegetable” and “I want to believe (Want to believe)/That if I go outside I’ll see a tractor beam.” Some of these lines throw off the sincerity of her writing and seem almost comical, but they are integrated with lines like, “I’d stand on a corner embarrassed with a picket sign/If it meant I would see you when I die,” which puts you in a much more relatable, sad place.

7.“Moon Song” is a classic Phoebe ballad, with muted guitar in the background. It sounds a lot like her first album, but more atmospheric. Focusing on a doomed relationship, this one hits especially hard, with the lines, “You are sick and you’re married, and you might be dying / But you’re holding me like water in your hands” and “When you saw the dead little bird, you started crying.” It’s full of fragility. It’s a love song about an imperfect love that is equally happy and sad. Although it doesn’t particularly stand out musically, the lyrics are marvelous. While the first half of the album is not  overall its strongest, despite glorious moments, the last four songs are essentially a perfect quartet of indie rock which show off the great variety Bridgers is capable of and is influenced by.
8.“Savior Complex” is the most Elliott Smith song in chord progressions and sound, with its acoustic strumming and cinematic strings and atmospheric background. A piercing violin solo that complements the rest of the song beautifully. Lyrically, the song explores horror imagery of skeletons, vampires, bad dreams, drowning in sleep, and more, but it seems ultimately to be about sharing those scary things with another person, and that ultimately making things better. The  songwriting on this one is just really good.
9. “I See You” is a single which, much like “Kyoto,” has the seeds for an epic encore once concerts happen again. I wish Marshall Vore’s drumming could start earlier on this one, but that does allow  the song to build well and to go through multiple phases. Particularly striking lines here are “If  you’re a work of art I’m standing too close, I can see the brush strokes” and “Let the dystopian morning light pour in.” The dystopia has been here all along, but as we approach the end of the album, it sets the scene for the grand finale.
10.“Graceland, Too” has the energy and ballad-like road storytelling of a classic Nashville or Memphis country song, but it is about a woman’s experience navigating a time of unease and what seems to be a mental health struggle. Bridgers writes, “No longer a danger to herself and others, she made up her mind and laced up her shoes,” which calls to mind 60s era country songs of someone lacing up their shoes and setting out on the road, but here with a dark, mental health twist. The ending repetition of “whatever you want, whatever she wants” calls us back to the ending of “Halloween.” Bridgers changes “rebel without a cause” to “rebel without a clue” and talks about how “we spent what was left of our serotonin/To chew on our cheeks and stare at the moon.” These lyrics seem to turn old clichés of what might be expected of a coming-of-age story on their heads.
11.“I Know the End” builds epically from very classic Bridgers sad acoustic folk to a crashing, daring and soul-rocking culmination complete with Phoebe screaming and gasping for breath amidst a cacophony of instruments. She writes lines like, “I’m not gonna go down with my hometown in a tornado / I’m gonna chase it,” “Driving out into the sun / Let the ultraviolet cover me up / Went looking for a creation myth / Ended up with a pair of cracked lips,” and “A  slaughterhouse, an outlet mall, slot machines, fear of God.” The whole thing feels mythical, like an apocalyptic forewarning but simultaneous embracing of the chaos humanity of 2020 have brought upon ourselves. A melodic theme from the first song on the album is brought eerily back, and the words “The end is here” are repeated over and over by Phoebe and her collaborators before the screaming end. It is a frightening way to end an album, but it feels perfectly fitting.
And so ends an album which shows us only the beginning of Phoebe Bridgers’ career. Things are just taking off, and they are already very strong. I’m excited to see how Bridgers might branch out in the future into different sounds and collaborations. So far she’s stuck pretty closely to her indie folk roots, and her reputation as the modern queen of sad rock music is still clearly not going away. But I feel she might have something new up her sleeves next time. We shall see.