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August 2020
Album review

Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher

A work of breathtaking beauty.
Label: Dead Oceans
Released: 19th June 2020
Rating: ★★★★
Phoebe Bridgers - Punisher
Published: 9:52 pm, July 30, 2020Words: Alex Bradley.

The path from her first album to her second has been far from ordinary but, in 'Punisher', Phoebe Bridgers takes all that she's learned in the last few years to flesh out the skeletons she keeps in her closet.

In the four years since recording 'Stranger in the Alps', the Californian singer has gone from the relatively unknown to a much-celebrated songwriter thanks to her work with as part of the supergroups Better Oblivion Community Centre and boygenius and having collaborated with the likes Hayley Williams and The 1975.

That experience and her wise-beyond-her-years storytelling help shape the second standalone helping of Phoebe Bridgers as a work of breathtaking beauty.

The songwriting and stories sewn in this album is comparable to that of Micheal Stipe for its ability to colour such seemingly ordinary situations into vivid snapshots of real life. Whether that's payphones in Japan, recurring dreams about tidal waves, late-night debates about Eric Clapton and John Lennon or being awoken by sirens from the hospital she lives near, Phoebe finds a way to sharpen the image regardless of whether it was profound and meaningful or not.

It's not only the background which comes into focus but also herself. There are more than a few references to the mask she hides behind as the dreamy vocal effect of the ethereal title track is stripped away during the line "I love a good place to hide / in plain sight". Or 'Halloween', in which Conor Oberst's vocals appear like a ghost, the chorus line soothes "Baby, it's Halloween / and we can be anything".

This album isn't about staying hidden though as the shimmery lo-fi of 'ICU' grows from "I've been playing dead my whole life" into a powerful and defiant bout of self-realisation which carries through into the equally empowered number 'Graceland Too'.

While personal growth is a huge factor in 'Punisher', the album also finds Phoebe Bridgers stretching her musical horizons too. Where her debut perhaps over-relied on minimal instrumentation and in turn made the single 'Motion Sickness' somehow out of place, this album strikes more of a balance.

Bright trumpets decorate the chorus line for the fun-filled race around Japanese cities in 'Kyoto'; which is perfectly contradicted with the chorus of "I want to kill you / if you don't beat me to it". Electronic drumbeats and swelling strings bolden the desperation in 'Chinese Satellite' too. And, by contrast, making the pay off for those more vibrant moments even bigger, there is still the heartbreakingly fragile moments; none more abundant than in 'Moon Song'.

At the apex of album, the closer 'I Know The End' acts like a pressure gauge which grows as it calls back through Hemingway-esque dead bird references from earlier in the album and a few nods to The Wizard of Oz to hit critical and reintroduce all the instruments from their cameos over the ten previous tracks to reach a deafening crescendo to the shouts of "The end is here".

But, after all the noise and chaos subsides, and the gauge slides back down, the track is left with just the sound of Phoebe's half-giggle and half-breathy scream as if to remind us to never take anything too seriously.

Ultimately, the ghost that was just a kid in a sheet has been both literally and figuratively Phoebe Bridgers in the last few years, but 'Punisher' is about taking that sheet off. Where she often finds beauty in holding a mirror to the world, she can find the same inspiration when she holds it up to herself.

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