Photo Credit: Frank Ockenfels
On June 18th, Phoebe Lucille Bridgers released her second full-length solo album Punisher. The album starts off with a meditative minute-long intro called “DVD Menu”, which is a string-led instrumental. To start off, we get a sense that the indie album will be on a calmer note. Phoebe shared a fun fact with Apple Music about the song stating, “It’s a reference to the last song on the record—a mirror of that melody at the very end. And it samples the last song on my first record — “You Missed My Heart.”
On the track “Garden Song”, Phoebe sings about her hometown of Pasadena, CA. Not only has she grown up there, she also shares memories with the person she’s singing about. The lyrics are playful and sometimes unexpectedly edgy, compared to the use of gentle guitar, with her oft vocals singing: “And when your skinhead neighbor goes missing // I’ll plant a garden in the yard, then.” There’s a very subtle reflection of love in the song, yet there are beautiful metaphors through Bridgers’ lyricism: “The doctor put her hands over my liver // She told me my resentment’s getting smaller.” Phoebe references Chinese medicine and the belief that pain in each organ represents human emotion, in this case the liver pain symbolizing silent anger and resentment.
“Kyoto” starts off with Japanese-inspired music, quickly transitioning into classic indie pop rock with heavy drums. Similarly to “Garden Song”, Phoebe takes us on a walk around the Japanese city Kyoto, but this time she’s singing about her father. It is clear to us that their relationship is complex: “I don’t forgive you // But please don’t hold me to it.” The title song “Punisher” is deeply emotional and intricate. Phoebe sings about someone she’s missing, while that someone has never met her. As mentioned by the artist herself, the song is about the late musician Elliott Smith, who she was a fan of and felt like she really knew him. The “punisher” in this context would be the eager fan trying to speak to their hero, whilst the “hero” just wants to go home and live a “normal” life.
Besides her solo career, Phoebe is also a part of two indie bands: Boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center. She collaborates with her bandmate from the latter, Conor Oberst, on the song “Halloween.” The main theme of the dark track is that it’s Halloween, and anyone can pretend to be anything they want that day. Phoebe also references a fan’s death at Dodgers Stadium in 2019. Phoebe sings, “I want to believe” in “Chinese Satellite”, a phrase commonly used in the context of seeing UFOs. She doesn’t believe in the afterlife, while sincerely hoping that belief is incorrect. “Chinese Satellite” is quite a melancholic and mysterious song.
While Phoebe’s lyrics are witty and at times sarcastic, she simultaneously puts bits of her personal stories, opinions and emotions in there as well. In “Moon Song” she sings, “We hate Tears In Heaven // But it’s sad that his baby died,” in reference to the song dedicated to Eric Clapton’s late son. “We” is possibly about her and the previously mentioned Conor Oberst, who also has had issues with alcohol and was sick at the time (of which both things are noted in the song). Following with a similar vibe, “Savior Complex” speaks on the ups and downs of a relationship, and how sometimes you might be dating someone just because you want to help them The topic of being with someone who hates themselves continues in “Graceland Too”, a song about her Boygenius bandmate Julien Baker, who’s had issues dealing with mental health.
The album gets a more upbeat sound in the song “ICU” (“I See You”), a track about breaking up with drummer Marshall Vore, who tours with her in their band Better Oblivion Community Center. Phoebe and Marshall used to date, but they remained friends and have been working on a lot of music together. The closing track “I Know The End”, has the most unique sound of Phoebe’s entire album. Starting off quiet and slow, the music becomes louder and heavier toward the middle of the song. Repeating the words “the end is here” and going into scream mode, Phoebe is giving us a grand finale of raw expression to what she was building up to. Closing with that apocalyptic last song, it is clear that Bridgers takes listeners on a journey throughout this project. Her hometown, relationship with her bandmates and father, a trip to Japan – all in one album. With Phoebe’s jokes and thoughts on love and the complexity of friendships, we can definitely see her vulnerability and growth as an artist.