Californian singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers cannot sit still. When I wrote about the eponymous debut by Better Oblivion Community Center last year, her band alongside Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst, I marked similarity between the two. I inferred their team-up was inevitable, as both share and exercise the ability to hop from one project to the other without suffering any loss of quality. I loved that BOCC record, and it had only been a whopping three months since the release of the last Bridgers project I loved, 2018’s Boygenius EP, written and performed with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus.
Is now a good time to mention she’s only 25? Her brand of plaintive storytelling is liquid in its capacity to fit any ‘container’ of sorts, and I’m excited to see if she continues to build on the foundations laid with these bands, or pack up and try something new once again. What I needed was more solo work.
Stranger in the Alps has never left my rotation since it’s 2017 appearance. ‘Funeral’ and ‘Scott Street’ just don’t seem to lose their gleam. Much of that album was relieving to listen to, very perceptive… and so refreshing in a genre that almost always leans towards abject melodrama. February of 2020 gave us ‘Garden Song’ and hope, and second album Punisher was finally announced the day Bridgers released follow-up single ‘Kyoto’.
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‘DVD Menu’ could easily be what it says on the tin. Although this inoffensive, easily repeatable minute of foreboding strings does get me wondering what kind of ‘movie’ I’m preparing to watch. The instrumentation of ‘Garden Song’ is watery and blurred, but Phoebe’s vocal is clear as day. She guides us through her childhood memories and settings, marking drastic changes but never dwelling long enough to miss the next. She also heavily implies she’s going to murder a skinhead, so, there’s that. The second, bassy and inhuman voice that shadows the chorus line supports the dream motif: “Everything’s growing in our garden / You don’t have to know it’s haunted”.
‘Kyoto’ is exasperated on a tour of Japan, to still be receiving unwanted calls and messages from a flame best left behind. “I’m gonna kill you” Phoebe sings on the huge chorus “…if you don’t beat me to it”. Her friends in Bright Eyes have returned to help out, and Nate Walcott’s horns take things beyond catchy. Despite the lyrical content, it’s infectiously upbeat. Describing why in a press release via Pitchfork, she admitted: “I wrote this one as a ballad first, but at that point I was so sick of recording slow songs, it turned into this”.
The title track is back to balladry. Phoebe’s private-diary-on-display style occasionally evokes Elliott Smith, one of her inspirations, but not in a “bad imitation of your favourite artist” kind of way; there’s deep respect for the craft in everything she does, and you can tell how broad her love for music spans with displays like this. A fully formed tear-jearker with a subtle little chorus to boot… you’ll be back here.
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The plucky guitar of ‘Halloween’ sits alone in an ethereal wind. We land in the midst of a dead (or at least dying) relationship, and the yearly milestone has set off a personal stock-take. “Sick of the questions I keep asking you, they make you live in the past / But I can count on you to tell me the truth, when you’ve been drinking and you’re wearing a mask” is a flippant jab at a situation much more serious… she’s tired of the opposition.
The chords of ‘Chinese Satellite’ are about all that’s steady in this number. There’s contemplation on an absentee God, and a wanting to believe in something; anything… to be part of a bigger picture. The guitar effects at the end of the track do a good job at being an audio companion to the “tractor beam” mentioned, that she wishes would take her home.
‘Moon Song’ is not a Karen O cover, despite my own second of wishful thinking. Upon listening, I’m extremely glad. “You couldn’t have stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody who loves you more / So I will wait for the next time you want me, like a dog with a bird at your door”. We blip around in dream-logic, lines blurred between fantasy and reality. What’s definitely real, however, are the feelings that this complexly portrayed love might be misplaced. “When you saw the little dead bird, you started crying / But you know the killer doesn’t understand”. It appears three years on, Phoebe still can’t break free of her own grisly self-opinion, demonstrated on the Killer EP, as well as Stranger in the Alps. Heartbreaking.
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To paraphrase Bridgers (to Apple Music) ‘Savior Complex’ is “thematically a sequel” to ‘Moon Song’, and the connection is glaringly obvious. This relationship has hooks in deep, and there’s no obvious resolution to be found. Don’t rob yourself playing this record on shuffle. ‘ICU’ was the last cut released in the album’s hype cycle. Hope is the spine of this track, and Phoebe recalls a past relationship that managed to morph into a positive post-breakup. “But I feel something when I see you now…”.
The swaying country breeze of ‘Graceland Too’ might not capture The King, but it’s had its share of blues in Memphis. The topic of the day is making decisions, and living with the extent of what they bring. The line “a rebel without a clue” once again shows love to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, and in turn The Replacements; the latter of which she’s previously referenced on Better Oblivion Community Center’s ‘Chesapeake’.
Ugh, what do I say about ‘I Know The End’? A beautiful summary of all the through-lines and infatuations of the record, that further affirms that this is an LP that wants to be listened to as one. An affair in two-parts almost, Phoebe draws her picture of the world in vivid detail, but drab colours. Take it in while you can, because the closing portion is powering up.
The horns of the apocalypse are soon blaring, and you’ll know the end too.
Punisher is an exercise in restraint. As I said of her work in the opening, it does a lot with a little. Phoebe’s continued decision to strip everything off of what could easily go nuclear (often considering weight of subject matter) keeps everything fresh, and spares the listener burning out on misery. I’ve criticised artists for it before, but if you go for the heart strings too often, there’s nothing left to tug at. The closer may prove me wrong, and point towards future direction, but it also may just have been the perfect knockout hook after an album of jabs and body shots. Time will tell. 2/2 with these solo records, and a hell of a future ahead.