- NYT Critic’s Pick
The second to last song on Phoebe Bridgers’s strange and exquisitely moving new album “Punisher” is called “Graceland Too.” A restless girl who has lived through something unspeakable (“no longer a danger to herself or others,” goes the song’s ear-pricking opening line) gets in a car without a particular destination in mind, settles on Memphis and “turns up the music so thoughts don’t intrude.” Of course it doesn’t work: She “predictably winds up thinking of Elvis,” as you do.
Born into a world post-everything, where she’s grown up being told there are no new ideas under the incrementally dying sun, this girl knows she’s not the first lost soul to point a car toward Southwest Tennessee — just as Bridgers, a 25-year-old singer and songwriter from Los Angeles, knows she’s not the first person to write a song about road tripping to Graceland.
But Bridgers is the first person ever to write a song about this precise road trip and its attendant mix of feelings, a kind of tattered, post-traumatic triumph that, in the warm company of another person, gradually blooms into a panoramic hope. Like the other nine songs on “Punisher,” it is a showcase of Bridgers’s great strength as a songwriter: weaving tiny, specific, time-stamped details (chemtrails, Saltines, serotonin) into durable big-tent tapestries of feeling.
Bridgers’s lyrical talent was evident on her 2017 debut, “Stranger in the Alps,” which had a few perfect songs but as a whole sometimes felt muted, languid and downcast. “Punisher,” though, moves along fluidly with its eyes to the vast sky. Bridgers’s arpeggiated guitar work remains quietly deft, and this album opens it up by placing it within an unobtrusive backdrop of looping synths and eerily groaning strings. That atmosphere sets the scene for Bridgers’s evocative, fractured storytelling.
The pulsating hums beneath the title track and the excellent first single “Garden Song” evoke a night sky alight with a mysterious glow — maybe an airplane or a U.F.O. or the fluorescent lights of a nearby megachurch. Through Bridgers’s eyes it’s hard to tell the difference, anyway: “I want to believe,” she sings on “Chinese Satellite.” “Instead I look at the sky and I feel nothing.”
Bridgers’s most frequently cited musical hero is another bard of Big Nothing, Elliott Smith. She shares with him a penchant for multitracking her murmured vocals, and this technique enlivens her music with the tension of mixed emotions; like a detached ironist hiding feelings just below the surface, Bridgers’s voice can be both deadpan and yearning at the same time. The title track, she’s said, finds her communing with Smith quite literally: “I hear so many stories of you at the bar,” she sings to the singer and songwriter, who died in 2003, when Bridgers was 7 years old. “Most times alone and some looking your worst, but never not sweet to the trust funds and punishers.”
In musician parlance, a “punisher” is a chatty superfan unable to play it cool around their idol; Bridgers likely has plenty of them herself these days, but in this song she grants them empathy by imagining herself fawning over Smith. “What if I told you I feel like I know you, but we never met?” she sings, adding, “It’s for the best.”
Though she moonlights as a member of the all-female trio boygenius alongside her peers Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, Bridgers’s most explicit influences and prominent past collaborators are moody men a generation or so older than she is: She has a side project, Better Oblivion Community Center, with Bright Eyes’s Conor Oberst, who contributes backing vocals to “Punisher”; “Stranger in the Alps” closed with a seven-minute cover of Sun Kil Moon frontman Mark Kozelek’s violent, haunting dirge “You Missed My Heart.”
That she identifies so closely with these perspectives gives her music an androgynous, everydude charm. But it also allows her to subtly articulate some nuances of female subjugation that her musical forefathers never quite had access to. Such is the piercing power of “Moon Song,” a highlight not just of “Punisher” but of Bridgers’s output so far. “You asked to walk me home,” she begins, “but I had to carry you.” The second verse is a collision of chatty humor and breathtaking pathos, of the dreamlike and the hyperreal:
“We hate ‘Tears in Heaven’
But it’s sad that his baby died
Then we fought about John Lennon
Til I cried and then went to bed upset
And now I’m dreaming and you’re singing at my birthday
And I’ve never seen you smiling so big
It’s nautical themed and there’s something I’m supposed to say
But can’t for the life of me remember what it is”
“Punisher” often feels like it’s taking place on that hazy edge between dreaming and wakefulness, where words stick on the tips of tongues and everyday notions (Halloween, pay phones, stucco) seem suddenly surreal. Maybe that is why it makes a particular kind of sense in this moment, when we’re all immobilized by existential dread and only able to travel in our dreams. Those are a few more of the finely specific yet universal feelings Bridgers knows how to put into words.
For the quarter century she’s been alive, Bridgers, like the rest of her generation, has been numbed with near-constant and banal threats of apocalypse — in the middle of the album’s stirring closer, “I Know the End,” she passes a laughably familiar highway sign: THE END IS NEAR. And so in the final moments of this phenomenal record, Bridgers dares herself to stare straight into the void, long enough to see if it’s bluffing again this time.
The song, instead, erupts: A collective of instruments and voices reach a grand crescendo that eventually gives way to screaming, fiery cacophony. It’s as vivid and gruesome and beautiful as Bridgers was promised. For a fleeting moment, she looks up and she believes.