As lockdown ticked on and on, June 19th became something like my own personal Christmas Day. I didn’t buy a tree, or eat a turkey, or start on the champagne while still in my pyjamas, but I did take a day off work and wait for my own version of Santa (the postwoman) to deliver my presents. And deliver she did. The ten-year anniversary edition of High Violet by The National. The Last of Us II. And, most importantly of all, Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers. I had awaited this album with the excitement of a child putting up their stocking ever since it was announced earlier this year. Phoebe’s first album, Stranger In The Alps, was one of my favourites from 2017 and I have followed her prolific career ever since. The Boygenius EP, her work as Better Oblivion Community Centre with Conor Oberst, her collaborations with pretty much everyone (but particularly Walking on A String with Matt Berninger). She is yet to put a foot wrong.
As I do whenever a favourite artist is releasing a new album, I had avoided the singles while I waited to hear the full piece. So it was all new to me. But as soon as I pressed play and ‘DVD Menu’ quickly melded into ‘Garden Song’, I could immediately hear that there was something a little bit different about Phoebe on this latest work. All of the previous releases have had elements of darkness about them, but this had often been hidden by her gentle vocals and the lightness of the production decisions. Not the case with ‘Garden Song’. The purposefully muddled sound on top of the guitars, the slight distortion, all underneath a story of murdering someone’s skinhead neighbour. This is a new sound for Phoebe, a new direction – and boy does it work. This song is totally mesmerising. And as we continue through the album we see a pattern – Stranger In The Alps was such a huge album to me that I wasn’t optimistic that Punisher could match it, but here is Phoebe absorbing the lessons from all the work she has done with others since her debut and building her own fresh sound from the pieces.
The darkness continues on new classics like the title song and ‘Halloween’, but even when a lighter tone is struck on ‘Kyoto’ and ‘Chinese Satellite’ we see Phoebe using her lyrical prowess to tell short stories so bleak that you can’t help but feel like you’re watching a movie. And that that movie is about you. On an album with no dud songs, ‘Chinese Satellite’ pushes itself into the top half because of the way Phoebe makes you feel the words. When she sings ‘I want to believe/Instead, I look at the sky and feel nothing’ you feel that lack of faith in the pit of your stomach. When she says ‘You were screamin’ at the Evangelicals/ They were screamin’ right back from what I remember’ you see it in front of your eyes like a vivid scene. Phoebe has always had this rare skill of painting a very clear picture with her words, but she has taken it up a notch on Punisher. Add to that the now unique and interesting musical decisions she is making, and it is clear that we are witnessing one of the most exciting talents on the planet.
This could be one of those reviews where I talk about every single song, but I won’t do that to you. Just go and listen to it instead. I can’t end without discussing the epic work of art that is the final three songs of the album, though. ‘ICU’ is another song that presents itself as a sweet pop track. But listen closely. The lines ‘I’ve been playing dead/My whole life/And I get this feeling/Whenever I feel good/It’ll be the last time’ should floor you if you have any ability to feel emotions, and the devastating way she presents the chorus of ‘I feel something/When I see you now’ may sound uplifting, but is totally heartbreaking when taken in context of the whole piece. ‘Graceland Too’ brings her Boygenius buddies back on board. It is the folkiest, prettiest song on the album, with great use of the banjo and harmonies that are so gorgeous they almost hurt.
And then. AND THEN. We have ‘I Know The End’. This song could merit a whole review of its own, that is how good and how fascinating it is. On this ever-evolving album closer Phoebe does that thing that only the best songwriters can, mixing the personal with the political so subtlety and effectively that it might well take a few listens for it to really sink in. And as she goes from a personal story to an apocalyptic road trip in a future that doesn’t seem too far away, we are dragged along with her by the sweeping horns and the percussive crescendo. And when she screams at the end we are screaming with her. This has to be the song of 2020.
Every few years an album comes along that you know will live with you forever. Punisher is that album for me. That said, I know Phoebe is not for everyone. The mix of the dark and light won’t work for those who don’t give it time, and for some it simply won’t be to their taste. That’s fine. Phoebe’s audience is growing with every project and every release, but the best thing about her work is that it feels so universal but also so personal. Intimate, even. It feels like she is singing to you while also telling your story. And the longer I can go on feeling like these songs are being performed solely for me, the happier (and sadder) I’ll be.
Words by Fran Slater