Phoebe Bridgers released her second studio album, “Punisher” (2020), on June 18 to universal acclaim, with many heralding the indie-emo-folk effort as the record of the summer. But, as temperatures have chilled and leaves have begun to change, it seems more and more apparent that this collection of songs is inseparably linked with the fall.
The comparison is obvious enough aesthetically — from the desert illuminated red by the night sky on the album’s cover to autumnal tunes like “Halloween,” “Punisher” deserves to be listened to on a turntable with a cup of coffee on a chilly October morning.
Thematically, Bridgers is also inspired by autumn, as the record’s 11 tracks paint a picture of a world that’s inevitably becoming colder and darker. The awareness of that descent and the chaos that transpires as a result is the soul of the album. Though “Punisher” was recorded before the COVID-19 pandemic began, its perspective couldn’t have been more representative of its current moment when released in June, and it appears even more prescient now in the first days of fall.
And in the midst of this colder, darker world, Bridgers ruminates on how to move forward. “Garden Song,” the album’s lyrical opener after the instrumental “DVD Menu,” reflects on manifesting positivity over negative energy, even when the latter is ever-present.
“It’s about fighting back dark, evil murder thoughts and feeling like if I really want something, it happens, or it comes true in a totally weird, different way than I even expected,” Bridgers said of the track.
Bridgers’ tour manager, Jeroen Vrijhoef, provides a baritone accompaniment on the song’s chorus, creating a rich, powerful melody that ties Bridgers’ manifestations together gorgeously. The final few lines of “Garden Song” are some of the most hopeful in Bridgers’ discography, a beautiful bow of self-actualization: “The doctor put her hands over my liver/ And she told me my resentment’s getting smaller/ No I’m not afraid of hard work/ And I did everything I want/ I have everything I wanted.”
Reflections on what Bridgers has and how far she’s come are a constant topic on “Punisher.” Not only being able to manifest happiness, but to understand and appreciate it, or at the very least exist peacefully alongside it, is a crucial part of Bridgers’ lyrical journey.
“The first record [‘Stranger in the Alps’ (2017)] is about trauma, and this record is about how even though I have the life I asked for, and supportive friends, and everything I want, and I’m very lucky, the tools I used to deal with trauma while it was happening are really holding me back from being able to truly enjoy the things in my life,” Bridgers said in an interview with Stereogum.
The album’s second single and third track, “Kyoto,” is one of the more prominent examples of this theme, with a stark contrast between the upbeat, guitar and horn-led instrumentals and Bridgers’ thoughtful lyrics on her complicated relationship with her father.
With an irresistibly catchy horn melody from Nathaniel Walcott of Bright Eyes, Bridgers wades through tumultuous waters of her past and her present, which happened to be during her tour in Japan at the time of writing. Her final chorus leaves a half-resolution: “I don’t forgive you, but please don’t hold me to it.” Bridgers isn’t here to provide definitive answers — she’s just trying to explore the right questions.
“Punisher,” the album’s title track, is an ode and love letter to Elliott Smith, a songwriter whose influence Bridgers wears proudly on her sleeve. In the subtle and dream-like track, Bridgers imagines herself as a “punisher,” a well-meaning but obsessive fan, to Smith if he were still alive. At the same time, Bridgers knows that she has her own group of “punishers” as her star rises.
The somber reflections that make up the first half of the album transition into faraway dreams with “Chinese Satellite.” The track laments for something to believe in — a beacon of light at the end of the tunnel that Bridgers can’t find through organized religion. The song builds up to a powerful and touching confession about yearning for something, anything, more: “I want to believe/ That if I go outside I’ll see a tractor beam/ Coming to take me to where I’m from/ I want to go home.”
“Moon Song” and “Savior Complex” project some of Bridgers’ internal struggles through the lens of a depressed lover, someone Bridgers deeply cares about but can’t fully understand and connect with. “Moon Song” is an expression of total love and adoration for this person, and “Savior Complex” shows the consequences of engaging in a relationship with them. Both feature some of the prettiest vocals on the entire record.
Though Bridgers brought a heap of personal style and vision into “Punisher,” the record was not without its collaborators. She worked closely with ex-boyfriend, drummer and current great friend Marshall Vore on “I See You,” a track about their breakup, led by a great pulsing percussive performance from Vore.
She also worked with Conor Oberst, Bright Eyes frontman and Bridgers’ partner in indie duo Better Oblivion Community Center, on “Halloween,” a hauntingly chilled acoustic track capped off by a stellar vocal duet from the two.
But it’s “Graceland Too,” the penultimate song from the album, that takes the cake for best group work. While a Bridgers song in name, the track features Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, Bridgers’ fellow members of the supergroup boygenius, and would fit snugly as a bonus track from their 2018 self-titled extended play.
The song goes in a few directions, stemming from thoughts Bridgers had on an MDMA trip. The song’s beginning story of a woman moving on to a new life seems to be heavily directed at Baker, Bridgers’ bandmate and close friend.
Eventually, the track reaches an album-defining bridge: “So we spent what was left of our serotonin/ To chew on our cheeks and stare at the moon/ Said she knows she lived through it to get to this moment/ Ate a sleeve of saltines on my floor and I knew then.” Baker and Dacus enter the vocal track on the final line of the bridge, a cathartic musical moment that demands a huge smile from every listener.
The bridge leads into a desperate and loving outro sung by the three, a repeated chant of “I would do anything you want me to/ I would do anything for you.” In this moment, it’s clear that this album is a triumph of our time — a culmination of love, trauma and grief that Bridgers both explores in her life and challenges you to explore in yours. From the perfectly plucked banjo chords to the nostalgic violin melody to the angelic vocal harmony between the members of boygenius, “Graceland Too” simply feels like a piece of pure magic.
Bridgers’ final gift of clairvoyance for America’s current state of ruin comes in the form of the album’s closer, “I Know the End.” The song depicts a drive up to Northern California, a drive that becomes tenser as the descriptions of everything around become bleaker. The ending lyrics tie the album together with a blunt concession: “The billboard said the end is near/ I turned around, there was nothing there/ Yeah, I guess the end is here.”
The song then bursts into an outro of frantic, repeated screaming of the final line, with contributions from most of the album’s collaborators from other tracks. A Sufjan Stevens-esque finale, Bridgers and company pull off the dramatic ending remarkably, creating about a minute and a half of chaos before coming to a close.
As we descend further into the depths of autumn, it seems as though Bridgers’ view that the world will come down with it may just be true. And if the end really is here, Bridgers is also right about one other thing: It often feels as though we can do nothing but scream.