American singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers released her second studio album, Punisher, back in June 2020. Almost three years on, the record continues to have the same captivating effect as when I first heard it.
Stylistically the album follows her usual indie-folk electroacoustic vibe. But I think what makes this record a masterpiece – yes, I would go that far – are the lyrics. Bridgers’ writing is extremely poetic, and often has a melancholic edge. There’s something about her words that differ from those of her pop contemporaries. The meanings of her songs can fluctuate from listener to listener. It’s like listening to sad, but beautiful, poetry.
The album starts with DVD Menu, a short instrumental introduction, which has a hazy dream-like feel to it. Garden Song follows, with a minimalistic accompaniment that allows Bridgers’ soft yet striking voice shine through. Its lyricism is open and honest – the song is a rumination on past memories, hopes, and desires, that can disguise themselves as nightmares. Kyoto is next, which is the most upbeat track on the album. With a driving beat and power guitar chords, Bridgers sings of disassociating and the feeling of always wanting to be anywhere but the present. She sings: ‘I wanted to see the world / then I flew over the ocean / and I changed my mind’. She sings of someone who is confused about what they want in life, the climax of the song featuring lyrics like ‘guess I lied / I’m a liar’.
The title-track, Punisher, is a simple-ballad evoking the eerie and solitary world of a ‘punisher’. Bridgers’ hauntingly beautiful voice is totally captivating, slowly and delicately singing lyrics like ‘what if I told you I feel like I know you / but we’ve never met / it’s for the best’. For Bridgers, the ‘punisher’ in this song is someone who is difficult to talk to. Her lyrics showcase the emotions and vulnerability one goes through when they feel like they are a burden to everyone. Halloween follows, with a minimalistic guitar accompaniment and sweet vocals. Bridgers uses Halloween as a metaphor for dressing up and disguising who we really are, singing ‘baby it’s Halloween / and we can be anything / I’ll be whatever you want’.
One of my favourite tracks is Chinese Satellite. With a powerful beat, a beautiful string accompaniment, and Bridgers’ honest voice, this track paints a picture of someone who’s struggling to accept who they are. Moon Song is next, possibly the most emotional song. The chorus, ‘If I could give you the moon, I would give you the moon’, talks of the difficulty of caring for someone too much, when the person you love can’t see why you love them. Bridgers admits in an interview that the song is about the feeling of ‘wanting to be stepped on’ by that one person. With a slow bass line and a gentle beat, the melody is one which I can never get out of my head. When I saw this song being played live in London last summer, I was shocked to see how much of an effect this track had on people. Bridgers has this ability to create a musical narrative which people can see themselves in.
Savior Complex sings of feeling like you always have to put other people’s needs above your own. The music is eerie, sombre, and sad, and there’s something about Bridgers’ vocals which make this sound like a confession – that she can’t help but feel like it’s in her nature to want to save people. The last line alludes to her trying to change, she sings ‘all the bad dreams that you hide, show me yours, and I’ll show you mine’.
ICU again demonstrates lyrical mastery. She confesses ‘I’ve been playing dead, my whole life’, referring to the depressive episodes that she experiences. The song talks about becoming really close to someone, and how you start to feel like they might be able to fix you. My favourite line is ‘if you’re a work of art / I’m standing too close / I can see the brushstrokes’. Getting too close to someone involves revealing who you really are and all of your flaws.
Graceland Too is a country-inspired ballad with banjos, guitars and fiddles accompanying Bridgers’ sweet voice, narrating about desperately wanting to help someone who doesn’t want to be helped. Her bandmates from Boygenius accompany, providing lush harmonies to honest lyrics. The final track is I Know The End. Bridgers confesses that she wanted this last track to be one where she screams. I think it’s a powerful ending – for all the emotion and vulnerability that she’s shown so far on the record, Bridgers allows herself to be completely free. The lyrics depict an apocalypse, and Bridgers sings of driving along the coast whilst knowing that ‘the end is near’.
If you really pay attention to the lyrics, I think it’s clear that Bridgers’ writing is unlike any other. With reflective, honest, and hauntingly beautiful poetry, she manages to tell narratives which listeners can see themselves in. Her music encourages interpretation. This, along with her striking voice and the often-hazy electroacoustic accompaniment, creates a musical world which could feel either like a dream or a nightmare. I think this is what makes the record so captivating.
Image by Brett Jordan