Phoebe Bridgers: Punisher (Dead Oceans) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Friday, August 7th, 2020  

Phoebe Bridgers

Punisher

Dead Oceans

Jun 19, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Anyone that owns a cat or dog has no doubt been gifted a departed mouse, bird, or lizard on occasion. An unwanted prize left delicately on the welcome mat. On Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore full-length, Punisher, she invokes death at her doorstep more than a few times and finds her own way to persevere. Images appear in “Moon Song” (“Like a dog leaves a bird at your door”) and the closer, “I Know the End” (“When I call you come home, a bird in your teeth”). While death is also dealt with in jest on “Halloween” as ambulances wail past Bridgers’ home. 

Literal death is rarely welcomed, but most of the departures Bridgers grapples with on Punisher involves the inevitable wind-down of fracturing relationships. Some that outstay their useful lives, where finality is apparent but often deferred. And the animal left at the doorstep is truly in those cases a gift. None are described in more detail than the gorgeously low-key “Moon Song” with its delicate atmospherics. “You asked to walk me home, but I had to carry you,” Bridgers starts before continuing the ebb and flow with musical touchstones. The couple agrees on a disdain for an Eric Clapton song, before coming to blows: “We fought about John Lennon until I cried.” The depths of Bridgers’ earnestness is never in question, including walks past Elliott Smith’s home on the title song being a nod to the fanatical.  

Bridgers is ironically at her best on Punisher when she finds herself the most disoriented. “I Know the End” puts her slyly in that spot. On an imagined drive out of the city, she sings “The billboard said the end is near, I turned around there was nothing there.” Nothingness ahead, nothingness behind. Between the devil and the deep blue sea as it were as the song builds to a crescendo joined in by most everyone she could gather. But ultimately leaving Bridgers grappling for footing at the end. The isolationist thoughts mirror Bridgers’ stark highlight, “Ketchum, ID,” from the boygenius project: “I am never anywhere, anywhere I go.” Punisher reunites Bridgers with pals Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker on the folky and lovingly delivered “Graceland Too”—no doubt a nod to Baker’s hometown if not Baker herself. The trio’s voices trace through and around each other in a pledge of devotion at the song’s end.

Punisher also brings back the core of Bridgers’ band in Marshall Vore (drums), Harrison Whitford (guitar), Emily Retsas (bass), and Nick White (keys). Not one to shrink from discomfort, Vore and Bridgers wrote the fully spelled-out “I See You” about their own tumultuous relationship—“I used to light you up, now I can’t even get you to play the drums.”  While the jewel-box ballerina twirl of “Savior Complex” lightly pushes Bridgers’ vocals out somewhere beyond the reef. The pairing of “Halloween” and “Chinese Satellite” come as something more ordinary in an early album spot where the most distinguishing thing is Better Oblivion Community Center buddy, Conor Oberst’s assist on the former.                         

Punisher has more than its fair share of transcendent moments, including the early singles “Garden Song” and the propulsive “Kyoto.” No one cites Dylan’s debut as his best, but Bridgers’ debut Stranger in the Alps arrived fully formed like Aphrodite from the sea foam out on the beach and Punisher continues her winning streak. No doubt Bridgers will be name checked down the line as she is compelled to do herself with her own heroes. Most of us didn’t see her coming and Bridgers has kept us on our toes with multiple iterations of what comes next. If you somehow missed her elevated take on Tom Waits’ particularly timely “Georgia Lee” last year, it is required listening. In the time between albums, Bridgers has remained busy, abandoned those that could harm, and picked up many more friends to enrich her work. Most of them are along for Punisher’s ride beyond the edge of town. Out to where uncertainty is all that is certain. Out to where Bridgers’ star shines brightest. (www.phoebefuckingbridgers.com

Author rating: 8/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10



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