Of all of the things we should leave behind in 2020, the music is most certainly not one of them. Releases from new and old artists alike filled the music industry with a burst of vitality many thought would be lost without concerts to attend. With the Grammys coming up, it’s time to reflect on everything talented musicians have shared in the past year. One of these is ‘New Artist’ nominee Phoebe Bridgers, and her second studio album Punisher.
Punisher itself has received critical acclaim since its release in June, receiving a nomination for Best Alternative Rock Album at the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards. Likewise, the featured song “Kyoto” has also been nominated for Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song. But there is more to this album than this one song. Here, I’ll be taking an in depth look at the work and reviewing the full album song by song.
“DVD Menu”- The chilling intro to Punisher echoes notes from various songs to come, fading in and out of earshot as a preview for the entire work. “DVD Menu” signifies the importance of listening to Punisher as a cohesive album. There are no lyrics, only an opportunity to compose oneself and listen.
“Garden Song”- “Garden Song” begins with a steady, hazy guitar riff reminiscent of a trance, much like the lyrics detail. The past, specifically childhood, becomes tender memories cradled by the gentle hum of Bridgers’ voice. For a song about dreaming, in both the literal and figurative sense, “Garden Song” describes moments that define the beauty of youth as much as the bitterness that often accompanies it.
“Kyoto”- Aforementioned and critically acclaimed, “Kyoto” tells the story of Bridger’s relationship with her father through the lens of her band’s trip to Kyoto, Japan. For its cavernously deep lyrics, the content of the song is accompanied by somewhat upbeat drums and melodies that create a jarring and romanticizing contrast between sound and meaning.
“Punisher”- An ode to the late singer-songwriter Elliot Smith,
“Punisher” layers Bridgers’ voice with echoes, as if she is passing through scenes in her mind, each verse a melancholy tribute to her hero and the connection she feels to him. All in all, the song has a rawness and awe that almost resembles the fear Bridgers has: not being able to control herself in the presence of someone who has made such an impact on her.
“Halloween”- Cloaked in dark humor, the fifth song off of the album discusses the death of a relationship and likens it to dressing up in costumes on Halloween. Along with this metaphorical experience, Bridgers also intertwines violent action with love, with the common thread between them being passion. Of all of the songs on Punisher, I would say “Halloween” is the least memorable to me. The melody and chorus were a bit too similar to other songs on the album. However, filled with eerie flutes and harmonies, the song is, ultimately, an embittered lamentation about death in various forms.
“Chinese Satellite”- Like the rest of the album, “Chinese Satellite” connects various topics within the length of one particular story, this one in particular focusing on the loss of a loved one. As a sepulchral anthem for lack of faith, and a struggle to comprehend an afterlife, Bridgers likens more scientific notions, such as technology and spacecrafts, to her death. Polished with a small orchestra of string instruments, Bridgers packs everything from grief to the deepest reaches of hope within every verse of this song.
“Moon Song”- Often, with its steady beat and reverberating guitar, “Moon Song” coaxes images of a quiet beach at night, reflecting beams of white light into the waves. Throughout the work, the lyrics depict the water and the tides, which are most often associated with the control of the moon. These notions define the meaning of the song- the impact of a past relationship, and the need to return to this anonymous lover despite all that may happen. Arguably the most moving song off of the album, Bridgers’ soft, wailing tones have the ability to evoke strong emotions in any listener.
“Savior Complex”- Bridgers herself considers this song a sequel to “Moon Song”, as it details a person in a relationship devoting all of their energy into saving the other person. It’s an unhealthy, heavy experience, and yet the narrator continues to pursue it as a result of their “Savior Complex”. Though sounding more lively than some of the other previous pieces, (haunting clarinets and other noises echo in the background) Bridgers’ wistful minor notes paint an ominous picture– almost a warning– to the unfolding situation.
“ICU”- Fast paced drums and guitar strumming open “ICU”, making for a rather buoyant song about dependency and depression. The intention is to encapsulate the temporary relief that coping mechanisms can give those who are mentally ill. However, it also highlights that these simple coping strategies can become more harmful than beneficial. Although I do enjoy this song on its own, in the cohesiveness of the album it seems starkly out of place. The brief feeling of joy that succeeds these kinds of actions is depicted in the flashy melody and plastic cheer Bridgers manages to encapsulate in her voice and in various instruments.
“Graceland Too”- Named after an extensive Elvis memorial in a house, “Graceland Too” tells a bittersweet story about moving on. With the help of Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker on backing vocals, the trio tell the tale of someone who has survived an incredibly rough period of life, dealing with addiction and mental illness. This unnamed narrator takes to driving through the streets of Memphis for a period of reflection. She is uncertain of the future, yes, but she is also sure that life can be fulfilling with some effort. Though not a country song, “Graceland Too” incorporates that genre’s flavor with the folk elements of Bridgers’ first album Stranger in the Alps, making a peaceful, albeit optimistic song about fighting self destructive behaviors in exchange for growth and strength.
“I Know the End”- The final track on the album is what Bridgers imagines the end of the world will be like. It is a masterpiece of work. It begins with a similar tune to its predecessor, resembling a folk rock ballad of the moments just before the apocalypse. It’s melancholy, reflective, and tinged with dread as she describes the overwhelming inability to do more on the Earth as the end of time approaches. Then, a burst of violins and a thick guitar sound, birds chirping for the last time, and Bridgers picks up speed as memories of her life travel through her. The tension builds, emphasized with the line “the end is here,” and a flood of horns and drum beats and a chorus of triumphant voices repeating the ominous line over and over in defiance. Suddenly, everything explodes into blood-curdling shriek and heavy metal and the pound of drums, a final moment of loud before everything stops, only one final noise, a whisper of a scream from Bridgers, is heard as the album fades into silence.
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