A triumph in understanding and toying with expectations
Dillon Eastoe
15:36 18th June 2020

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Few albums in recent years have been as anticipated as Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore solo record. Having wowed critics and gained legions of fans with her 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps, taking her from a little-known LA songwriter to a folk phenomenon, Phoebe kept us waiting for the sequel. In the meantime various collaborations with the likes of Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, The 1975 and a brilliant track with Matt Berninger of The National have kept Bridgers busy and showcased a versatile songwriter who’s the envy of her peers.

Where Stranger in the Alps largely consisted of stately, well-produced folk, the intervening years have seen Bridgers play with different instruments, arrangements and production techniques. The first thing to say about Punisher, the new record, is that (hear us out) it’s quite fun.

Learning the best lessons from her side-project Better Oblivion Community Centre (avec Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes fame), Phoebe toys with a lo-fi production that leaves room for weird vocal manipulation, instrumental quirks like the trumpet on ‘Kyoto’ and a range of ambient sounds hovering in the back of the mix.

‘Garden Song’ opens the record with a musical mirror image of ‘Smoke Signals’ from that first record but the production is murkier, the fingerpicked electric guitar feeling like it's bubbling up through water as Bridgers details a creepy collection of childhood memories. ‘Kyoto’ fleshes a pop song out with terse violin and playful brass. It's Phoebe’s most upbeat solo release, replete with experiential references to her first tour of Japan that somehow feel relatable (even when for most of us they’re really not). And the title track doubles a fragile vocal with a vocoder effect that adds a new twist to a familiar piano arrangement.

Lyrically, yes, a lot of this is classic Sad Phoebe, but now with an added knowing smirk to the emo honesty, as Bridgers embraces her role as an indie icon that’s seen her become an essential follow on social media. Her writing has always been deeper than surface level breakup songs anyway. Heartbreak itself isn’t as interesting to Bridgers as how it can change that person long afterwards, and the hardships she describes still evoke a strange joy from how brutally honest the words are.

Punisher is a varied record, taking more dynamic risks than Stranger in the Alps, but the quality of songwriting is consistent enough that this doesn’t feel disorientating. 'Graceland Too’ leans into that rootsy Americana that Bridgers, Baker and Dacus explored on their boygenius EP, and ‘I Know the End’ climaxes in a swirl of noise that fades to Phoebe jokingly cheering herself on for the encore.

Creating a record that builds on her reputation as the best songwriter on the block while acknowledging the humorous and also political bent of her media presence, Punisher is a triumph in understanding and toying with expectations.

Punisher is out now via Dead Oceans. 

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