Coming off of her debut album in 2017, Stranger in the Alps, Phoebe Bridgers set an extraordinarily high standard for her music. Her work two years later on a project entitled Better Oblivion Community Center only built upon this high reputation, forcing audiences to recognize her aptitude as a songwriter and musical curator. Both of these works share similarities that can be traced throughout Bridgers’ musical career — a keen eye for observing the world and a clear voice for expressing it. Punisher is a record that upholds these standards, even pushing them, and showcases Bridgers as one of the most insightful and well-written artists of our time.
Front to back, Punisher is a story told unwaveringly through the perspective of Bridgers. This is not to mistake Punisher as just another diary entry narrative of first-person experience — the record moves far beyond the personal narrative by recognizing a much larger story, one that contextualizes Bridgers’ experiences in a globalized society. Throughout the LP, she accounts her own memories and experiences in exceeding detail and intimacy, leaving almost nothing to question about the literal meaning of her lyrics. Her craft, however, resides in the way she connects these experiences to the world with incredible nuance.
On “Garden Song,” one of the most complex tracks on the album, Bridgers dreams of a future plagued by contemporary realities that are heard riddled throughout her lyrics. Between hopefulness and optimism, she plants seeds of frightening truths. “Someday I’m gonna live/ In your house up on the hill/ And when your skinhead neighbor goes missing/ I’ll plant a garden in the yard, then,” she sings. These reflections of bigotry, instability and unease remind audiences of unfortunate realities of the world we live in, and their likely presence in the worlds we dream about. The track re-emphasizes this in its style as well, particularly through the male vocals layered onto the track. The voice feels like that of a ghost, haunting Bridgers and echoing her words with a dissonance, as if it was a reminder of harsh truths meant to bring her dreams back down to Earth.
She is able to build profound relationships with listeners on tracks such as these. This is where the detail and complexity of her songwriting pays off, allowing a connection between her lyrics and the listener that evolves as the album progresses. The cuts on Punisher are not easily digestible: They demand an audience willing to delve into Bridgers’ sonic psyche and hold out long enough to understand what she is actually saying. This is the importance of an artist creating this connection with a listener, forcing them to invest in their art and truly grasp all that it has to offer. Bridgers clearly understands this sentiment and performs exceptionally in achieving that crucial connection.
There is much to say about the elegance and crispness of Bridgers’ voice throughout this record, but through and through, this is a songwriter’s LP. The level of lyrical virtuosity on tracks such as “Chinese Satellite” and “Moon Song” make them standouts in a tracklist with no dull edges. Every syllable feels meticulously placed and every chord meaningfully played, allowing an unbreakable tether between the listener and the story Bridgers develops. Many artists have the ability to share what they’ve experienced, but few have the power to create an entirely new experience for the listener.
Ending Punisher’s story is a track entitled “I Know the End,” the concluding breath of a journey that began with the instrumental song “DVD Menu.” “DVD Menu” served as a question of sorts — its elongated strings and rumbling bass asking if its listener is ready to proceed into the experience Punisher creates. Past these opening gates, Bridgers deals with the big ideas, able to tackle love, loss and societal turmoil within. In her closing statement, “I Know the End,” she thrusts listeners out with a bang, consuming them with crashing symbols and the destruction of musical form, signaling a convergence of the themes discussed. She sings solemnly: “The end is here.”
Here lies the genius of Punisher: Within this LP, Bridgers finds ways to account stories that help audiences learn about themselves, their lives and the state of their world, as well as their unique — and sometimes difficult — place within it.