Bridge(r) To Nowhere?
Three years on from her haunting debut Stranger In The Alps, California indie superstar Phoebe Bridgers has returned with her solo sophomore record. Punisher is a slow burning, intimate and introspective look at Phoebe; her mental health, her experiences and essentially, her life. She describes romantic relationships, death and her complicated relationship with her father.
‘DVD Menu’ kicks off this LP, a brooding instrumental track just over a minute long. It feels uncomfortable, and cinematic to an extent, like it would not seem out of place in a film or video game sound track (hence the title!). The sound design is creepy and understated and it is a very leftfield way of kicking off an album, especially if you compare to intros like The 1975’s big, memorable ‘soft sound’ introductions. My only reservation with ‘DVD’ is the transition from this to the second track is non existent. Usually an instrumental passage provides a smooth transition between tracks but this not the case. It simply feels like a tone-setter. Following ‘DVD Menu’ is one of my favourite singles of the year so far - ‘Garden Song’. Understated, raw and heartbreaking. The track's simple production is stunning; a repeated kick drum, with finger-picked guitar and some eerie sound effects dropping in and out. Phoebe’s performance is divine, and the harmonies in the chorus are perfect (the low voice is actually her tour manager Jeroen Vrijoef!). Lyrically, Phoebe describes her recurring nightmares she has on tour. She also references to personal events she experienced as a teenager, which really creates an intimate connection with the listener. Second single ‘Kyoto’ follows, and is the most uptempo track on this record by a country mile. In an April 2020 press release, Phoebe stated
“I wrote this one as a ballad first, but at that point I was so sick of recording slow songs, it turned into this.”
The standout of ‘Kyoto’ is Nathaniel Walcott’s (Bright Eyes) horns throughout the track. It turns this from a standard indie track to something a lot more. The mix is clear but still retains a slight edge. Title track ‘Punisher’ (Punish-her), however, is truly haunting in its Elliot Smith-reminiscence. Phoebe’s soft delivery croons over an almost lofi piano, evoking the feeling of an Aphex Twin track. Orchestral strings flourish sporadically in the background, along with filtered, glitchy sounds and reverb soaked percussion that combine into an exceptionally atmospheric moment.
‘Punisher’ is followed by ‘Halloween’, which kicks off with some awkward guitar plucks, and is again accompanied by the almost wind-like soundscapes hovering in the background. These soundscapes seem to crop up frequently over the forty minute runtime; never being obvious, but providing rich texture to the simple instrumentals taking centre stage. Although these soundscapes are excellent, they crop up a little too much. ‘Halloween’ is extremely understated and once again shines a light on Phoebe’s lyrical ability. She seems to reference boygenius' ‘Souvenir’ with opening line "I hate living by the hospital," then proceeding into darker territory with the reference to the murder of a baseball fan outside Dodgers Stadium in 2019:
They killed a fan down by the stadium
Was only visiting, they beat him to death
The themes of death continue to weave themselves throughout this record, with Phoebe showing little belief for an afterlife on ‘Chinese Satellite’:
Because I think when you're gone, it's forever.
The guitars on ‘Chinese Satellite’ give me instant nostalgia towards Stranger In The Alps, and Phoebe’s intimate, reverb-drenched vocals continue to push the personal nature of this record. Strings and atmospheric drums appear once again on this track, which seems to be a recurring theme. ‘Moon Song’ continues this trend, but Phoebe’s passionate vocal work is truly stunning. ‘Savior Complex’ and ‘Graceland Too’ are probably the most underwhelming on the album. They feel too similar to Stranger and provide little change, with the latter feeling like a generic country-pop instrumental with tiresome (and even tedious) melodies.
Closer ‘I Know The End’ is a huge, noisy and cinematic finale. Big drums with layers of strings and horns climax with a relentless outro, with Phoebe full on screaming her lungs out. It is the most experimental track on the album by a long stretch. The first half sticks to the atmospheric background, soft guitars approach but transitions into this unflinching beast of a finale.
However, despite these tracks being individually great, the album as a whole is underwhelming. While the production is eerie and atmospheric, it becomes stale very quickly as Phoebe’s writing style seems to fall into a very formulaic one. Nearly every track opts for soft instrumentals with airy soundscapes. I’m not saying each track should explore a different genre, but even a hint of variation would have made this record a lot more alluring. Punisher could have worked excellently as an EP. There is too much filler, and too much of the same for this album to truly wow me.
It is an evolution from Stranger, but the evolution is cut short by insipid, mundane production. After a while it just seems uninspired and the singles leading up to this are by far the best tracks on the album. If Phoebe had focused the last few years on her sophomore LP and not with side-projects, Punisher could have turned out incredibly different, but I guess we’ll never know. Despite all this, there are some lovely cuts on Punisher but the majority of the record blurs into one. Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore album is a step forward, but I’m not sure if its in the right direction.
- 6.7 -
'Garden Song', 'Punisher', 'I Know The End'
James Mellen is a very bored student in his final year of compulsory education, waiting to study music production and performance at degree level. He is passionate about music, guitars and music. He also watches films sometimes.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture blog created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based in South Wales