It feels inaccurate to call Phoebe Bridgers’ latest record, the consistently great Punisher, her sophomore album. Doing so brushes over two significant releases — 2018’s boygenius, an EP alongside Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus that plays to all three of their respective strengths, and 2019’s Better Oblivion Community Center, an unexpected collaboration with Conor Oberst that found her expanding on the sounds of her solo debut, 2017’s Stranger in the Alps. Still, at 25, Bridgers is, by all metrics, an artist at the beginning of her career, though Punisher sounds more like the work of a time-tested veteran perfecting a style she’s been honing for years.
Great songwriters build fully realized worlds in their songs, but on Punisher Bridgers is often able to do it in just a few lines. There’s a portrait of recovery in the opening lines of “Graceland Too” (“No longer a danger to herself or others / She made up her mind and laced up her shoes”), an ironically tense counter-protest in “Chinese Satellite” (“You were screaming at the evangelicals / They were screaming right back from what I remember”), or the details of a strained relationship with her dad in the rousing “Kyoto”:
Sunset’s been a freak show on the weekend so
I’ve been driving out to the suburbs
To park at the Goodwill and stare at the chemtrails
With my little brother.
He said you called on his birthday;
you were off by like ten days, but you get a few points for trying.
Her hyper-specific scenes aren’t clever asides, though: they’re the entire point. “Songs are like dreams, kind of. I was calling you, but also you were right next to me,” she recently told Uproxx. “But when your mouth opened I couldn’t really hear what you were saying. And then you turned into my preschool teacher.” And like dreams, the songs on Punisher are organized by feeling rather than plot. In “Garden Song”, she moves from killing a skinhead to jumping the fence at The Huntington to enduring a flood in a movie theater to visiting a doctor’s office, where she’s informed that her “resentment’s getting smaller.” That may sound wildly random, yet none of it feels disjointed within the song’s emotional context. In many ways, listening to Bridgers’s surrealism feels more like our contemporary reality than any linear narrative could. “And when I grow up / I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life,” she sings, “And it’s gonna be just like / My recurring dream.”
Unlike the Surrealists, Bridgers’ style isn’t a protest so much as a coping mechanism. “People have stopped romanticizing the future. I just feel like I could never imagine a time beyond now. I used to know what my life would look like in eight months, now I certainly don’t,” she said. “If I woke up every morning and thought about the reality of everything, it would totally consume me,” she told The New Yorker. “I have to think about it as if it’s happening in a movie.” Like more than one legendary American songwriter before her, Bridgers is documenting the present in its vernacular. For 2020, that means the language of the scattershot — snapshots and sound bites, quick bursts and clickbait.
If we make it past eight months from now, I won’t be surprised if Punisher‘s final track, “I Know the End”, is used as a primary source for what it was like to witness 2020. The track details a dystopian America that’s eerily recognizable. “Windows down, scream along / to some ‘America First’ rap-country song,” she sings. “A slaughterhouse, An outlet mall / Slot machines, fear of God.” After a mysterious object appears off the coast, unrest reverberates through the country, but Bridgers isn’t concerned:
No, I’m not afraid to disappear
The billboard said, “The End Is Near.”
I turned around, there was nothing there
Yeah, I guess the end is here.
It’s a shrug that morphs into an anthem, as group vocals take that final line to the album’s end. It’s not hard to imagine arenas singing those lines at a deafening volume under different circumstances. And in those closing moments, Bridgers encapsulates everything that’s so successful on Punisher. Other writers might look to the past or towards the future to make sense of the disturbing present, but Bridgers is determined to embrace the moment on its own terms. It may sound bleak and illogical, but at least it’s honest.