As one of the world’s foremost millennial sirens, Phoebe Bridgers straddles a fine line between curiosity and carelessness. Her impressive 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps was anchored by intimate moments and earnest reflections, detailing the well-worn battlefields of break-ups, loneliness, and personal loss.
In the three years since Bridgers has gone on to display a remarkable adeptness and versatility in her performances and songwriting, whether it be through collaborations with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus as boygenius, or her efforts as one half of Better Oblivion Community Center alongside Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes).
For her sophomore follow-up Punisher, Bridgers expands on this chameleon-like adaptability by delivering a record that follows the path of an indie singer-songwriter’s Möbius strip. It’s an intensely self-aware record, with plenty of instrumental twists and turns, but one that ultimately (and satisfyingly) returns the listener to their starting destination. As Bridgers admits in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, “I write a lot of my songs in the same key and the same chords.” And it was this acknowledgement of comfort-zone familiarity which ultimately lead the 25-year old songwriter to find “new instruments to play it on, to kind of cheat my way into writing the same song over and over.”
Across its 11 tracks, Punisher is littered with examples of this gleeful yet naturalistic experimentation. Lead singles “Garden Song” and “Kyoto” are tender embodiments of Bridgers’ knack for immersive storytelling. The former gently ebbs and flows with gruff backing harmonies from Bridgers’ tour manager Jeroen Vrijhoef, as the latter strikes upbeat horn sections and playful synths against a weighty confessional fuelled by alcoholism, isolation, and depression.
Elsewhere on the record, Bridgers makes the most of a slew of high-profile guests and familiar faces, including Christian Lee Huston, Nathaniel Walcott (Bright Eyes), Nick Zinner (Yeah Yeahs), and Jenny Lee Lindberg (Warpaint). However, these collaborative features are never the focal point on Punisher; like all of Bridgers’ work to date, it’s the little details that count. Oberst pops up on “Halloween,” lending his delicate croon as back-up to Bridgers’ ethereal ruminations on desire, death, and identity. “Chinese Satellite” and “Saviour Complex” swell and burst with lavish string arrangements, while Baker and Dacus appear on the folksy, country-tinged “Graceland Too,” adding a pastoral richness to the track’s soaring harmonies.
With a reputation for penning devastating break-up songs, Bridgers brings the goods once more on “I See You,” contrasting familial discontent (“I hate your mom/ I hate it when she opens her mouth”) with withering self-deprecation (“I used to light you up/ Now I can’t even get you to play the drums/ ‘Cause I don’t know what I want/ Until I fuck it up”). On apocryphal closer “I Know The End,” Bridgers frames relationship doom-and-gloom through The End Times, a feeling that’s both instantly relatable and patently absurd. Lightning and tornadoes, acts of God and government surveillance, slot machines and UFOs—it’s a rousing and triumphant finale for Punisher, making the record Bridgers’ most expansive and intricate outing yet.
Purchase Punisher here.