Phoebe Bridgers might still be ascending, but if she’s found stability in her career, she doesn’t display it in her art. Her latest solo album, Punisher, persistently searches. Bridgers-as-singer sounds lost throughout the album, whether geographically, personally or professionally. Her music remains as confident as ever, and her collaborative work in boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center has helped build a solid communal structure for her, even as she tries out new sounds. The disc nails certain facets of her experience with its open and careful language, and that singular, unending pursuit keeps the album focused.

Single “Kyoto” rocks with more upbeat attitude than typically comes from Bridgers, but she hasn’t gotten any happier. The song sets her in foreign territory (literally, on tour in Japan), but her dislocation revolves around her imposter syndrome as well as her relationship with her father. She’s explained the former issue in interviews, but it’s an implicit base for the song rather than an explicit topic. Her alienated connection to her father comes through more clearly. She has complicated feelings, mixing good memories with strange birthday greetings and sobriety concerns. Bridgers sounds like she’s in orbit, circling healthy landing places while never quite feeling at home.

That feeling continues throughout the album, Bridgers’ never finding security. It’s a new age of anxiety. The nervousness of the ’90s sounded like mid-career Radiohead, twitchy and glittery and full of a hidden gnosticism that suspected it didn’t know enough, Pynchon playing a synth in the tundra. The new anxiousness sounds warm and knows it doesn’t know, but doesn’t like it. Bridgers sings about “chem trails” less like it’s a conspiracy and more like it’s part of a background too noisy to process. On “I See You,” she sings, “I don’t know what I want until I fuck it up.” It’s hard to believe she knows after the mistakes either. There’s no internal grounding to make sense of the world.

At the same time, there’s little belief that the world makes sense anyway. The album closes with “I Know the End” (a rare nod to at least a little epistemological certainty). What she knows is only that things fall apart – that people leave and self-destruct. By the time she sees a billboard that says “the end is near,” she’s connected her experiences with a generalized apocalypticism. The heaviness of modern anxiety gives way to a noisy implosion.

The weight of the end comes not just from the sound of calamity, but from the middle of the album’s agnosticism. “I want to believe,” Bridgers sings in “Chinese Satellite,” but she wants to believe more than she wants to believe in anything in particular. Eventually, she settles on wanting to believe that aliens will abduct her with “A tractor beam/ Coming to take me to where I’m from/ I want to go home.” Her homelessness, her unbelief and her restlessness all seek resolution.

Conceptually, the album maintains itself well, but it sounds best in its variance. Bridgers fits well within what’s become a small scene in itself (think of her collaborators with a little expansion), but the more she seeks sonic changes, whether in tempo or in effects (as on “Garden Song”), the more the album succeeds. Her approach risks a turn toward the conversational, dropping the solid melodies she often writes, and when that happens, the album can flag a little despite the strong lyrics. Fortunately, Punisher does find enough sonic variance to support its thematic cohesion. It’s a record full of uncertainty, but as far as its creator’s skills are concerned, it leaves little doubt.

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One Comment

  1. Tray Duclos

    April 17, 2021 at 7:52 pm

    The vulnerability that you mention is PRECISELY the very thing that works. It is in fact the most attractive thing about Phoebe, and her music. It is the only ‘what works’ that her sound brings. You missed the point, my friend. Her lost is the point…wake up.


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