Phoebe Bridgers’ New Album ‘Punisher’ Reviewed
‘Punisher’, the new Phoebe Bridgers album, is receiving a lot of positive and admirative press, the Quietus has called her ‘a prophet for a broken generation,’ she has made a ‘visionary emo-folk album’ according to Rolling Stone, and ‘she is a singer-songwriter for the ages, especially this one,’ according to the LA Times…
I have no problem recognizing Bridgers’ place in her generation, she is a fan of Harry Potter, she is obsessed with cults, podcasts about murders, and captivated by Tarot and Astrology, but I am not seeing this prophetic and visionary imagery. She depicts her current scenery from Silverlake to Tokyo with vivid details but it’s too direct and specific to be called prophetic. As a Pasadena native, she alludes to the annual rose parade (‘They’re gluing roses on a flatbed’) she names her immediate surroundings (‘Off a bridge at the Huntington’) and even evokes the tragedy of her childhood house catching fire (‘I grew up here, ‘til it all went up in flames’), with the same detached tone, while her dreamy languid smoky murmur does not change much.
Her songs are anchored in real events, from a day off in Kyoto during a tour (‘Day off in Kyoto/Got bored at the temple’), to a news item about a murder at Dodgers Stadium during a game, ‘They killed a fan down by the stadium/Was only visiting, they beat him to death.’ Can you get more specific than this?
In interviews, she is as direct as she is in her songwriting, she doesn’t hide anything, and if we already knew that the titled track is about Elliott Smith, ‘Chinese Satellite’ is about her lack of faith, ‘Garden Song’ is about reoccurring nightmares she has on tour. and ‘I See You’ is about her ex-boyfriend and drummer Marshall Vore, ‘I used to light you up/Now I can’t even get you to play the drums.’
Despite an apocalyptic ending, the cathartic crescendo at the end of ‘I Know The End,’ which honestly reminded me several Bright Eyes or Sufjan Stevens songs, despite a death theme and some other possible murders, there’s hazy boredom haunting the album. Despite the fact this is one of the few times you can hear Phoebe’s voice soar, ‘Kyoto,’ the most upbeat song with its Bright Eyes trumpets describes a depressive disillusionment, ‘I wanted to see the world/Then I flew over the ocean/And I changed my mind.’
Most of the time, her vocals are so lethargic that the songs of the album just glide over your mind like a peaceful and relaxing shower, you know there’s angsty drama under this stagnant water and pretty touches, but there’s so little change in her tone, that it’s difficult to feel anything. ‘I’ve been playing dead my whole life,’ she sings during ‘I See You,’ and I believe her, even when she makes a direct allusion to the tragic death of Eric Clapton’s son, she doesn’t modulate her tone a bit, ‘We hate Tears in Heaven/But it’s sad his baby died.’
If you do sad and lonely, if you like ethereal instrumentations of acoustic guitars, tainted with strings, mellotron, and a few horns, she is the girl for you. Musically, the album has more sonic explorations than her first one, with her pulsating hums, she tries to build her personal ancient folk mystic. It’s as pleasant and relaxing as a morning yoga session (to stay with the Silverlake theme) or as a slow walk inside an artistically lit room, but she is not breaking any new ground, and she probably knows it.
I also like lonely and angsty, but I want deep emotions, and ‘Punisher’ is often quite bland at this level, it’s often atmospheric and nicely orchestrated, with multitracked vocals, a trick she stole from Elliott Smith, but her breezy and eerie voice often crystallizes at the surface of her feelings like a beautiful work of art. If it sometimes grows at expressing something close to yearning, it doesn’t provide much emotional depth even when she repeats many times that she feels something in ‘I See You.’ I get it, it’s an exercise on numbness.
‘Graceland Too’ and its southern banjo atmosphere detaches itself from the rest while paralleling an MDMA trip with a classic road trip to Elvis’ mansion, while possibly referencing Tom Petty/The Replacements/James Dean, ‘A rebel without a clue.’ If it’s possibly a song about fellow Boygenius Julien Baker, her storytelling doesn’t embarrass itself with metaphors, it’s rather chatty and conversational and most of her songs are collections of thoughts, series of detailed scenes, with life vignettes going from heartbreaks to failed relationships,… ‘You asked to walk me home/But I had to carry you.’
Punisher is a term designating a too chatty superfan who hangs out at the merchandise table for too long after a show. It’s also the song about her songwriter hero, Elliott Smith, ‘But we never met/ It’s for the best,’ she sings while recognizing she would have been one of these embarrassing punisher fans. But in her own introspection and exploration of numbness, she seems to ignore that Elliott was also funny.