Favorite Track: "Graceland Too" Least Favorite Track: "DVD Menu"
(Disclaimer: AboveTheBridge has already reviewed this album earlier in 2020, this is a re-review in celebration of the end of the year. Enjoy!)
Every so often, bands and artists take a giant left turn in their musical and artistic progression, essentially reinventing themselves for the better and surprising fans and critics alike. Radiohead did it with their infamous 1997 album OK Computer, Pink Floyd blew the musical world away with their 1973 conceptual revolution Dark Side of the Moon, and most recently, Phoebe Bridgers did it with her 2020 critical darling Punisher. It may seem a bit brash or foolish to compare Phoebe Bridgers to Radiohead or Pink Floyd, and to an extent that may be true. However, despite these artists clearly being different in both genre and overall music influence and quality, one thing is for certain: all three records were a revolutionization of their personal sound and style, a far cry from the musical tropes people once knew them for.
Phoebe’s 2018 effort Stranger in the Alps was a fantastic album, even if Punisher takes the cake by a long shot. Phoebe’s emotionally up-front songwriting was on full display, backed by simple indie-folk instrumentals that highlighted the sheer beauty in her voice. Tracks like “Demi Moore” and “Motion Sickness” showed off Phoebe’s funny and relatable way of writing lovesick ballads, using ultra-specific details of her story to make the situations feel more fleshed out and important. This is a sentiment she takes to the extreme on Punisher, making for a listen that feels like taking a walk inside Bridgers’ mind and exploring everything she has to offer. Punisher isn’t just an album of heart-wrenching ballads and chamber-folk cuts though, it is a guided tour of Phoebe’s hopes, dreams, worries, depression, and everything in between.
When this album was released in June of 2020, listeners across the board were completely blown away by how peculiar of a turn Phoebe took with this release. The instrumentals are strikingly lush as opposed to the stripped back, acoustic-driven sound palette of Stranger in the Alps. From the very first track “DVD Menu” (Which runs straight into “Garden Song”), it becomes increasingly clear that Phoebe had an agenda; a mission to make an album so touchingly gorgeous and strikingly sad that it would pave a lane of its own. The instrumentals on the duo of tracks are remarkably intertwined and incredibly sad, with gorgeous strings and lightly plucked guitar taking the lead on “DVD Menu”, while the guitar and a slightly distorted synth lead pull ahead on “Garden Song”. However, at no point on “Garden Song”, or any other track on the record for that matter, do the instrumentals take precedence over Phoebe’s voice. For the entire forty-one minute runtime of Punisher, the vocals are always at the forefront, creating an ethos so deeply personal and direct that it is nearly impossible not to be moved as a listener.
The title track “Punisher” is one of the more notable songs on the record, and brings up a sentiment that seems to describe the album’s agenda quite well. The track is a tribute to the late Elliot Smith, who is someone Phoebe has made clear she looks up to. On the chorus, she sings “What if I told you/I feel like I know you/But we never met” backed by fluttering strings, light bass, and gorgeously plucked guitars. Punisher is perfectly described by this chorus, the record becoming a storybook of Phoebe’s personality with each passing song. The family troubles on “Kyoto”, the relationship qualms on “ICU” and “Moon Song”, the existential questions so boldly posed by “Chinese Satellite” and the cathartic closer “I Know The End”. Once the record comes to a close, you feel like you know Phoebe as a whole person, through thick and thin, through highs and lows.
Another testament to how this record manages to affect people is that nearly every listener seems to come out with a different favorite track. Each and every song on Punisher runs a different emotional theme. Every track seems to reassure a different emotional struggle, to make the listener feel as though they aren’t alone in the multitude of hardships they may be experiencing. “Savior Complex” is a beautiful cut about trying to love someone who has endless amounts of self-destructive tendencies, with the instrumental and lyricism sounding like being repeatedly beaten down by your efforts to save someone from themselves. “Chinese Satellite” sees Phoebe waxing on existential questions, exploring her hopes and fears surrounding death. “Graceland Too” is a beautiful country-tinged folk ballad about confidence and being in control of your own life, a sentiment many people seem to relate to in the age of COVID-19 being in complete control. The instrumental is cathartically simple and the vocal harmonies between Phoebe and frequent collaborators Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus are nothing short of heavenly.
When this record was released, I didn’t expect it to have the impact on me that it did. I sat there, completely blown away with each individual listen, Phoebe’s inviting and comforting voice making me feel safe and understood time and time again. In a way, Punisher became a loving companion to me and many others through the terrible year that was 2020, an emotional onion that became a project to explore and figure out. To me, no record has ever been released that covers emotional peaks and valleys in such a touchingly specific way like Punisher does. When you finally finish the album, the lights go down and the curtains close, it leaves you baffled; completely at a loss for what to make of it. Phoebe’s beautiful songwriting applies to the mundane, but feels so important to the larger picture, and the hundreds of interpretations one can take from this album is a true testament to why it has been so successful this year. Punisher isn’t just an album: it is a comprehensive field guide for the emotionally vulnerable and tender: a one of a kind album that stands in a lane of its own.