ALBUM REVIEW: Phoebe Bridgers exceeds expectations, avoids sophomore jinx on ‘Punisher’

Phoebe Bridgers arrived seemingly out of nowhere on her 2017 debut, Stranger In The Alps. Her take on indie folk deals with heavy subjects with a special sense of humor and eye for small, poignant details. Success seemed to snowball, with bigger gigs, celebrity co-signs, and collaborations with likeminded talents in Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus as boygenius, as well as emo figurehead Conor Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center. 

All these factors upped the anticipation for her sophomore album, Punisher: the kind of high-profile follow-up that has tripped up plenty of talented artists before. Fortunately, Bridgers is more than up for the challenge. She leans on her strengths and creative continuity with her longtime bandmates, plus a reprisal behind the boards from Stranger production team Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, for a series of formula tweaks that elevate Bridgers’ songs in new, varied ways. 

Part therapy, part move past the trauma that fueled her debut, Punisher is nakedly emotional but far from stifling. Bridging its predecessor via moody, string-drenched opening instrumental “DVD Menu,” it’s clear from the jump that something different is happening. The album’s moods are more varied, its sounds broader (if still unified). The music is richly textured, full of gauzy sounds, whooshes, twinkles, and backwards noises. Everything seems to leave trails, smearing through the massive amounts of negative space in the recording. 

The National’s orchestral, slow-burning indie rock is a frequent touchstone – perhaps not a surprise after Bridgers collaborated with singer Matt Berninger. “Garden Song” sounds like that band playing underwater, while uptempo single “Kyoto” takes brass flourishes straight from their playbook. The latter, which explores her up and down relationship with her father, showcases Bridgers’ talent for the kind of gut punch observations that lyricists dream about: lines like “It costs a dollar a minute / To tell me you’re getting sober / And you wrote me a letter/ But I don’t have to read it,” or “He said you called on his birthday / You were off by like ten days / But you get a few points for tryin’” are straightforward, devastating, and funny all at once. 

Bridgers stays conversational throughout, balancing mundanity with an eye for everyday poetry. “Moon Song” is muddy but warm, funny and sad as it romanticizes “this person who hates themselves, and you love them,” Bridgers tells Stereogum. Lines like “We hate ‘Tears In Heaven’ / But it’s sad that his baby died / And we fought about John Lennon / Until I cried / And then went to bed upset” hit hard on multiple levels. Another talent in Bridgers’ arsenal is her ability to find triumph in downcast, uncomfortable moments, like the mood shifts from drunk Iron & Wine song to something reminiscent of Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush’s So duet, “Don’t Give Up” on “Halloween.” (It also features a low-key but worthwhile appearance by Oberst.) 

She’s self-excoriating, too. “Punisher” – a pejorative term for overzealous fans who linger in conversation a little too long after shows – was inspired by Bridgers imagining herself doing the same to a hero, the late Elliott Smith. “Chinese Satellite” is “about turning 11 and not getting a letter from Hogwarts, just realizing that nobody’s going to save me from my life,” Bridgers told Apple Music. “Savior Complex” came to her in a dream, a sequel to “Moon Song” reminiscent of a Radiohead ballad circa The Bends where she realizes that the person she loves “who hates themselves… has gone through the exact same thing of trying to break down walls [with every person they’d been with before].” It’s a very generational self-awareness, not afraid to dispense withering judgment inward.

Punisher’s final three songs neatly encapsulate Bridgers strengths. “I See You” balances lines like “I’ve been playing dead / My whole life / And I get this feeling whenever I feel good / It’ll be the last time” with laugh-out-loud funny lines like “I hate your mom / I hate it when she opens her mouth / It’s amazing to me how much you can say / When you don’t know what you’re talking about.” boygenius bandmates Dacus and Baker join on the lovely straightforward folk of “Graceland Too” – a pleasant reminder of her earlier material and other projects.

And then there’s “I Know The End.” It’s the kind of epic closer made for live singalongs – a mix of Billy Bragg’s “St. Swithin’s Day” with an outro that’s pure Sigur Ros build and release, along with a kitchen sink’s worth of ideas and production touches (among them, screams, tempo shifts, and string and brass accents). It’s not difficult to imagine fans singing back “The end is here” with the same triumphant, therapeutic vigor as Bridgers and company here. It would be challenging to find a more uplifting song about purgatory.

It’s impossible not to listen to Punisher through the lens of current events – a global pandemic, an explosion in civil rights activism, and life lived isolated and indoors. In many ways, it’s the perfect album for a time where we’re all figuring it out as we go: it’s humorous, serious, and deeply felt; happy, sad, and comfortable shading in between. 

“[Punisher] definitely captures a period in my life, but I think I’ll know way more in five years… it’s like reading your subconscious,” Bridgers told Amanda Petrusich in a New Yorker profile. Whatever insights it yields to Bridgers in the future, the album never feels less than universal now. Punisher is ultimately a triumph – not only a win over the sophomore curse, but a sign of even more potential. It’s an exciting prospect – one exhilarating enough to somehow make you forget about the present while being immersed in it, if only for a minute.

Words by Andrew Ledford