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Phoebe Bridgers, "Punisher": Music for Haunted Times

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Aimee maintains a safe distance from living beings and spends hours talking to non-living things.

Phoebe Bridgers, "Punisher" (Dead Oceans, 2020)

Phoebe Bridgers, "Punisher" (Dead Oceans, 2020)

Phoebe Bridgers
Dead Oceans, 2020

Should we call the new sound of American independent music today 'post-folk rock'? I was tempted to call it ‘new folk,’ but then I realised the 1960s (especially Dylan) may have already given us 'new folk'—see the Bob Dylan and the New Folk Movement LP (various artists, 2013). Whatever its name, it sounds intelligent, fresh, sometimes spiritual or pastoral and rebellious at the same time, with raw emotions and strong personal songwriting aesthetics.

While Phoebe Bridgers's work with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus for Boygenius borders on indie rock, folk and grunge pop, her collaboration with Conor Oberst for Better Oblivion Community Center is mostly roots rock. However, her solo work is versatile and brilliant. Rolling Stone (June 2020) terms her sound 'emo folk' and attributes her influences as Warren Zevon, Joan Didion, Jackson Browne and John Prine.

Along with artists like Baker, Dacus, Noah Gundersen and other extremely talented, young, multi-genre multi-instrumentalists (Baker and Gundersen in particular)—a generation of musicians she has collaborated with and those I have been following for the past few years now—Bridgers, who is not a new artist by any means, is surely a voice to reckon with.

The Album's Themes

In the lyrics to the first track of Punisher, "Garden Song," Bridgers writes: “The doctor put her hands over my liver / She told me my resentment's getting smaller . . . .” It is a song that grows as we listen to it minutely—not to mention that the haunting bass part taken as a second vocal really works across the song and as she sings: “I get everything I want / I have everything I wanted.”

It is also worth mentioning here that there is something about the intro and especially the outro of the album that I feel defines the character of the artist: The themes of loss, broken faith and self-destructive love that run through her first album Stranger in the Alps (2017) find new meaning in her second album, Punisher.

"Haunted" as a Metaphor

The use of the “haunted” trope across the lyrics and the soundscapes of the album seems to me something more than its literal use. "Haunted" as a metaphor seems to be a reflection of the horrors of the times we live in and the consequences of the refuge and escape routes we often seem to seek through mind-altering substances: a failed attempt at making this existential reality less brutal.

Bridgers performing live.

Bridgers performing live.

The lyrics are sometimes filled with raw emotions, sometimes wistful. The soundscapes (which are noteworthy because of the use of many uncommon instruments) are dreamy yet unsettling. In songs like "Punisher" and "Halloween," Bridgers explores her emo sound to the fullest. She writes:

“But I can count on you to tell me the truth

When you've been drinking, and you're wearing a mask . . .

They killed a fan down by the stadium

Was only visiting, they beat him to death . . .

Baby, it's Halloween

And we can be anything”

— "Halloween"

And there's a haunting hum in the aftertaste as the song fades with “Whatever you want, be whatever you want"—to which Conor Oberst hums along.

On this album, there’s eeriness, a feeling of deep loss, a sense of being trapped and references to addiction. A silent emo angst that runs across these songs, especially the title track "Punisher," which, Bridgers shared, is about the late American singer-songwriter Elliott Smith:

“The drugstores are open all night

The only real reason I moved to the east side

I love a good place to hide in plain sight . . .

Man, I wish that I could say the same

I swear I'm not angry, that's just my face

A copycat killer with a chemical cut

Either I'm careless or I wanna get caught”

— "Punisher"

In "Chinese Satellite," a relatively underrated song on an album of eleven wonderfully woven tracks, Bridgers mourns a dead friend and converses with the person:

“Drowning out the morning birds

With the same three songs over and over

I wish I wrote it, but I didn't so I learn the words . . .

You were screaming at the evangelicals

They were screaming right back from what I remember

When you said I will never be your vegetable

Because I think when you're gone it's forever . . .

If it meant I would see you

When I die”

— "Chinese Satellite"

Quarter-Life Angst and Disappointments

The soundscape of the song "Kyoto" for me is a fresh splash of memory from the 1980s with everything about it that is new, now revisited. From the flute intro to its lyrics that celebrate a sort of an idea of inertia, the idea of not doing, nothing is ever imposed—like depression itself.

“Day off in Kyoto, got bored at the temple . . .

The band took the speed train, went to the arcade

I wanted to go, but I didn't . . .

You said you wrote me a letter

But I don't have to read it”

— "Kyoto"

Its music video smells of cyberpunk sarcasm—or of frustration and despair. Though it may sound upbeat, dreamy and distorted, it is rather an unsettling song.

A review in Independent, UK states that the song is about a fling she had with the noted American singer-songwriter Ryan Adams—which eventually became emotionally abusive (Independent, June 2020). However, in a January 2021 interview with MTV (about her second album, its Grammy nominations and her method of songwriting), Bridgers shares that she wrote the song about her father, or more specifically about her being mad at her father. She also adds that "Kyoto" is sort of a sequel to "Motion Sickness."

“I'm gonna kill you

If you don't beat me to it . . .

I don't forgive you

But please don't hold me to it . . .

I wanted to see the world

Through your eyes until it happened

Then I changed my mind.”

— "Kyoto"

And she ends the song with: “Guess I lied / I'm a liar / Who lies / 'Cause I'm a liar."

But then again, in "Savior Complex," a striking, depressing song, she adds: “I’m a bad liar / With a savior complex.”

The Pastoral and the Dystopian

Bridgers knows the pastoral and the dystopian: She works in spaces between them. Ballads and love songs on the album such as "Moon Song" and "I See You" (aka "ICU") have rather unsettling lyrics. These excerpts represent them best:

“You couldn't have

Stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody

Who loves you more . . .

We hate 'Tears in Heaven'

But it's sad that his baby died

And we fought about John Lennon

Until I cried”

— "Moon Song"

“If you’re a work of art

I’m standing too close

I can see the brush strokes . . .

Let the dystopian morning light pour in”

— "I See You"

In "Graceland Too" (which reminds me of "Ketchum ID" by Boygenius), Bridgers takes us through a pastoral-folk ride with strokes of banjo and waves of a violin as she makes “. . . up her mind and laced up her shoes / . . . she walked outside without an excuse."

“She could go home, but she's not going to

So she picks a direction, it's ninety to Memphis

Turns up the music so thought don't intrude

Predictably winds up thinking of Elvis”

— "Graceland Too"

And the striking harmony at the end: “Whatever she wants / Whatever she wants.”

The final track is a stab at an idea of a song. Both the lyrical and the compositional ideas behind “I Know the End” sort of create the many possibilities of what Phoebe Bridgers could be—and probably even what she doesn’t want to be: “I'm always pushing you away from me . . . / And when I call, you come home / A bird in your teeth.”

There is the hopelessness of a dystopian vision:

“Windows down, scream along

To some America-first rap-country song

A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall

Slot machines, fear of God

Windows down, heater on

Big bolts of lightning hanging low

Over the coast, everyone's convinced

It's a government drone or an alien spaceship”

— "I Know the End"

The use of various strings and other instruments in the sound collage of the song breaks into thrash metal riffs—and a death growl that is just musical magic. The song brings to me a desperate dream, unnerving: an accident, an idea gone wrong; the dystopian anger of a young generation. She concludes:

"Either way, we're not alone

I'll find a new place to be from

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'

I turned around, there was nothing there

Yeah, I guess the end is here

The end is here . . .

The end is here . . . "

— "I Know the End"

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Aimee S