19 Thoughts on Phoebe Bridgers' Punisher

19 Thoughts on Phoebe Bridgers' Punisher
  1. “I know why you chose 19,” my wife said with a smirk when I published the first installment of what is now, I guess, another franchise of this newsletter. I was genuinely perplexed, for at least a moment or two, until I realized what she was implying: I’d chosen the number 19 because of (what else?) COVID-19. I guess it subliminally entered my thoughts. Oh well. I swear this entire thing’s existence isn’t a COVID-19 gag, really.
  2. “Didn’t this album come out, like, several months ago?” Yup. But one of the luxuries of having your own writing platform is the ability to spend more time with albums, let ideas germinate, and if you feel so inclined (as I did here) spread ‘em out a bit without worrying about being first past the post. That’s not to specifically criticize anyone who writes about music when it initially comes out! There’s obviously value (not to mention a frequency of great writing) attached to that approach. But it’s simply going to be more interesting for me to outline thoughts on a not-quite-new album in this newsletter than it will be, say, on Twitter.
  3. I promise I didn’t just pad out the first two “thoughts” on this installment with stuff that’s not actually about Punisher. Shit, three. Well, whatever. It’s my newsletter, not yours.
  4. When Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour came out—I’m talking, like, literally the six weeks after its release—a friend remarked to me that the album itself seemed “even better than people are saying it is.” On a level, of course, you could take that statement as a matter of opinion; I could say the same about Maroon 5’s Red Pill Blues, which most critics hated and maybe three other people total that I know like besides me.
  5. But there is a sense of performative excitement on social media that surrounds new releases these days—an ambient cloud of a phenomenon in which the conversation can sometimes smother the ability to give (or, worse, suss out from others) the release in question any sincere critical read, effectively blurring the lines between criticism and fandom amongst cultural writers. (Charli XCX is a frequent victim of this; so are HAIM, and I suspect Mitski—who’s been the subject of more over-the-top behavior online than any other indie artist in the last five years, may never log on again because of this.)
  6. Just to turn the theoretical gun on myself for a second: the only ones—specifically, music writers—innocent of this behavior are those who are never online at all. Were I a casual observer of my own social media activity, I might suggest that I’ve crossed into pure fandom territory when it comes to my coverage of the 1975 (more on them later). In my defense, they still have yet to make a truly bad album to me, and the negative discourse around their music frequently scans as outsized too—so, there.
  7. Anyway: a cursory scroll down the timeline on any given day suggests that Phoebe Bridgers inspires a similar devotion that those previously mentioned artists do, and Punisher is the rare, once-or-twice-every-year-or-so album in which the quality of the songs itself somehow exceeds the blare of fandom that surrounds it. Some days, I think it’s the best album released this year so far (a few other personal contenders: Soccer Mommy’s Color Theory, Jeff Rosenstock’s NO DREAM).
  8. Is it just me, though, or does this thing not really kick in sequencing-wise until the title track? That isn’t to say “Garden Song” or “Kyoto” are bad songs in the slightest—rather, Punisher is the rare no-bad-songs album in which finding faults can involve more than a fair amount of squinting. Perhaps it’s just difficult to achieve a sort of sequencing that feels perfect with an album that feels so self-contained when it comes to its individual parts.
  9. “DVD Menu” itself is a clever way to open the album, though, from the title on down. The gentle loop of DVD menus in general feels like something we gave up in the streaming age in exchange for an experience that’s more all-encompassing and emotionally detached.
  10. One more not-really-a-complaint: the first few times running through this album, I found myself instinctively skipping “Halloween” because I thought the drip-drop opening (reminiscent of the National, a band it took me a full decade to start actually liking) forebode something boring in its structure. Very dumb on my part, it’s one of my favorite songs on Punisher now.
  11. I love the cover of Punisher and find it extremely evocative when it comes to the music that’s beyond it. There’s UFO imagery scattered throughout the album, and the image of Bridgers looking up and into a red-hued broad beam of light makes me think about waiting for someone—or something—to come and take us into an emptiness away from the chaotic and literal hell on earth.
  12. Similar to shoegaze-emo mystics Hum’s astounding Inlet from this year, Punisher makes me think a lot about outer space even when Bridgers isn’t explicitly talking about the cosmos. Where Inlet sounds like rushing into the awesomeness of a black hole and traveling to Jupiter, though, Punisher feels more like being jettisoned from an airlock after a space explosion—watching the detritus orbit around you in zero gravity, disparate elements zooming in and out of view while making the barest peep as they pass by.
  13. The collab-packed approach of what’s increasingly looking like the tail end of Kanye West’s classic-era run—from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to The Life of Pablo—ushered in an era of pop-album assemblage in which myriad artists from indie, mainstream, and behind-the-scenes spheres are pulled in to offer smaller parts of what eventually becomes a bigger picture. We’ve seen the reverberations of this in the cool-magnet credit-scouring releases that have dominated the pop landscape over the last five years, from Solange, the Weeknd, and Beyoncé to Drake, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift; it’s why music publications run a list of album credits as news stories now when big albums are released.
  14. I could be totally wrong here and welcome any corrections that come my way, but Punisher certainly seems like one of the first (and certainly one of the most notable) instances in which that creative ethos was applied to an album in the indie sphere. (Periodic reminder that “indie” is being used here to describe how things are marketed rather than designating a specific sound or ethos; for all intents and purposes, Bridgers’ music is also as pop-centric in a classic sense as it is indebted to indie rock legends like the late, great Elliott Smith.) The credits for this album are dotted with little Easter eggs, from Conor Oberst, Nick Zinner, and Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins to singer-songwriter Christian Lee Hutson (whose own brilliant Beginners from this year was produced by Bridgers), to her boygenius bandmates Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. For music that sounds so solitary, it’s surprising how many people contributed to its framework.
  15. Despite the aforementioned Elliott Smith influence, it’s remarkable how Bridgers has established her own style and sound as a songwriter and musician over just a few years. “Phoebe Bridgers-type beat” is and will increasingly be a thing as her influence and stature grows; prior to Punisher’s release, there was already a notable example in the form of “Jesus Christ 2005 God Bless America,” the 1975’s Notes on a Confessional Form single that featured Bridgers on guest vocals. She didn’t contribute (credited, anyway) songwriting, but the song is unmistakably the genre-busting band treating “Phoebe Bridgers” as a genre onto herself—again, no small feat for an artist who’s only been in the public eye for less than five years.
  16. It’s incredible that Bridgers got shit for her comments on Eric Clapton (who, despite [gestures in the air] all the personal tragedy, has admitted himself to being a “semi-racist” in his own checkered past and also has largely made boring music) while this absolute gem of quote-making brilliance just flew by unnoticed.
  17. The Clapton-referencing lyric in “Moon Song” is just one of many reminders on Punisher that, while Bridgers’ ability to cut close to the emotional bone is oft-praised, she’s just as good at being funny, too. A lot of her humor, to me, is found in observing the quotidian grimness of living—the lyrical equivalent of the self-awareness contained in an artist who’s known for soul-baring donning a skeleton costume on the cover of her latest album.
  18. Despite “Phoebe Bridgers” becoming a potential subgenre of indie music in itself, I’m frequently dazzled by the span of sounds that make up Punisher: the all-in-it Broken Social Scene-isms that close out “I Know the End,” the New Order-esque bass line that quietly crashes through the middle of “Chinese Satellite,” the plaintive bluegrass of “Graceland Too.” This sonic multifariousness continues to surprise me after many listens, and it speaks to the sneaky level of detail in this music, which frequently takes on straightforward shapes when it comes to melodic delivery.
  19. I sense a growing trend that Punisher is a part of, too, albeit one I’m still working on putting into words. Other albums that sonically come to mind when I listen to it are Clairo’s Immunity, HAIM’s Women in Music Pt. III, and the aforementioned Color Theory—all excellent and potential classic-status albums that sound resolutely mid-2000s-esque at times to me, evoking that era in which indie rock first began the process of shedding the “rock” from its genre tag while flirting with the mainstream in ways unprecedented since Nirvana broke through with Nevermind. (Someone once remarked to me that Immunity sounded like The O.C. soundtrack—a compliment, and one that’s been ringing in my head ever since.) This era reached full consecration with Feist’s classic The Reminder, and in the decade-and-change that’s followed Feist has slyly shape-shifted sonically with every album while still packing the songwriting punch that initially elevated her to acclaim. I can’t wait to see where Bridgers and her peers take us over the next decade, too.

Subscribe to Last Donut of the Night

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson