The dark emotional, hilarious observations of Phoebe Bridgers’ songs are well-documented. Reaching far, her material uncovers a quirky complexity that delves deep and unpicks the multiple layers of life’s absurdity. It lets poetry, self-narration, indie and folk music float freely with originality and cataclysmic elegance.
Known and admired for the ability to recognise the bitter-sweet, depicting the sadness of modern existence, she has the ability to take her contemporary folk currency and transform it with style and cleverness.
Always open about her admiration for Elliott Smith, which began early on, prior to her career in music, it probably comes as no surprise that the legendary American songwriter and multi-instrumentalist pays a spiritual visit on Bridgers’ second album project.
She shows a gift and enthusiasm for collaborating with others, leading to critical aclaim and international recognition. The songwriter takes it further here, when she brings in guests like Conor Oberst, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus and Nick Zinner and more.
The distinct poetic storytelling comes with mesmeric ease. The enriched imagery-led ‘Garden Song’ extends wonderfully from an instrumental intro, the strings-tinted ‘DVD Menu’. Brimming with dexterity, with vague echoes of ‘Motion Sickness’ from her debut ‘Strangers in the Alps’, Bridgers’ voice outlines and defines what’s to come – a tasteful melodic display where harmonies and vocal discourse form definitive building blocks for stories to unfold.
A renewed confidence through songwriting is delivered. Each track has an identity as heard on the song ‘Kyoto’ where she tackles experiences of Japan. At first the upbeat vibe seems to underpin the excitement of her travel adventure. But that’s not all, there’s dealing with alcoholism and the feeling of being dissociated no matter how fantastic things may seem.
Album title track ‘Punisher’ is a fascinating piece about what it’s like to never meet Elliott Smith but being in the vicinity of where he used to live and hang out, constantly think over how scenarios might have played out. “And here everyone knows you’re the way to my heart/I hear so many stories of you at the bar/Most times alone and some looking your worst”, she re-imagines.
At five minutes and forty-five seconds ‘I Know The End’ does more than signify a grand finale. There’s some reason to compare it to ‘Can’t Make A Sound’ from Elliott Smith’s ‘Figure 8’. Also built around a well-structured arrangement and melody, the track creates a gradual build-up using nuanced instrumental involvement, steeply interjecting a similar energy and clarity, no matter how dark and doomday-like it is.
‘Punisher’ is an immense album tackling the ugly and absurd sides to life with beauty, humour and self-awareness. It’s a unique reporting style and a key statement.
Words: Susan Hansen
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