Phoebe Bridgers Casts Songwriting Into Fire and Brimstone on ‘Punisher’

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Phoebe Bridgers | Punisher | (Dead Oceans)
4 out of 5 stars

Phoebe Bridgers collects up her wounds as bones in a graveyard. Her songwriting always hangs in limbo, somewhere between life’s luminescence and its brutal darkness. The way she cobbles together haunting melodies with visceral-aided stories transcends time and place. Her 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps, configured relationships and their outward ripples within a muted soundscape. It was fragile, yet imposing.

Three years and numerous collaborations – including with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus as boygenius – later, she reaches further into her psyche and hits a new creative apex. Her sophomore solo effort, Punisher, more than lives up to its moniker, doubling-down on folk-adorned arrangements that are gutting and confrontational. She then levels-up on the kind of songwriting for which she’s so known; tortured soundscapes bear down on the listener with force. The work is at times sickeningly soothing (“Garden Song,” “I Know the End”). Other times, it grinds together into electric starbursts (“ICU”). “I swear I’m not angry / That’s just my face,” she swears on the title song.

“Halloween” and “Savior Complex” contain her most savory, cruelly suffocating lyrics. “I hate living by the hospital / The sirens go all night / I used to joke that if they woke you up / Somebody better be dying,” she observes on the former. With the latter, she deconstructs a toxic relationship: “Baby you’re a vampire / You want blood and I promised / I’m a bad liar / With a savior complex.” Love and loss twist together into crushing performances, propelling her further along an inevitable tract of tragic living.

Reteaming with co-producers Ethan Gruska and Tony Berg, Bridgers pulls the listener into a weary world only she could master. It’s exhaustive but redemptive, and she casts her songwriting into fire and brimstone, only to later yank it free in the knick of time.

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