Phoebe Bridgers – ‘Punisher’ review: atmospheric indie with an undercurrent of anxiety

The NME cover star branches out from the downbeat alt-folk of her 2018 debut album, exploring millennial dread with a broader sonic palette

Phoebe Bridgers has previously said that Joan Didion – the acclaimed author who skewers a particularly chaotic strain of boredom sun-stained by California glare – was on her mind as she wrote ‘Punisher’. And like Didion, Bridgers captures the everyday figments of life with a bleak smirk. “I hate living by the hospital / The sirens go all night,” she sings on the gentle ‘Halloween’, and what seems like a mundane complaint quickly swerves to address the inevitability of death. “I used to joke that if they woke you up,” she sings, “somebody better be dying.” 

Read more: On the cover – Phoebe Bridgers: “I definitely feel a lot less apologetic than I did before”

This same dryness permeates the entire record, to gripping effect. On ‘Garden Song’ the  NME cover star dreams of overseeing a well-tended garden in the distant and abstract years lying ahead, and a routine trip to the GP takes a surreal, psychoanalytic twist. “The doctor put her hands over my liver,” Bridgers sings, “she told me my resentment’s getting smaller.”

Bridgers’ voice is as clear as ever, and sonically, she expands from the foundations set down by her breakthrough 2018 debut album ‘Stranger In The Alps’. That record was rooted in downbeat, finger-picked alt-folk; restrained, painfully intimate, and precise. ‘Punisher’ meanwhile is looser, and builds on those earlier atmospheric flutters and branches out.

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‘Kyoto’ chugs along like a bullet-train, bolstered by flourishes of string, and bright, bassy horn-parps: “Day off in Kyoto / Got bored at the temple / Looked around at the 7-11,” she sings, documenting a day of trading in Japanese cultural landmarks for the safety of identikit corner shops. The twinkling opening moments of ‘Punisher’s title-track give way to treated vocals and twisted fairytales. “If your favourite thing is Dianetics or stucco,” she sings, conjuring up a strange link between cement plaster and the connection between mind and body, “The drug stores are open all night / The only real reason I moved to the East side / I love a good place to hide in plain sight.”

And her painstaking imagery sits atop a varied and rich palette, with familiar collaborators contributing along the way. Bridgers’ Better Oblivion Community Center bandmate Conor Oberst, and her boygenius collaborators Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker feature on ‘Punisher’, as well as Warpaint’s Jenny Lee Lindberg, Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bright Eyes’ Nathaniel Walcott and revered session drummer Jim Keltner. Far from glitzy guest spots, their contributions are modest and woven into the tapestry of the record.

Bridgers has previously stated that ‘Punisher’ explores “crying” and numbness – which is certainly true – but what it most successfully captures is stasis, and an undercurrent of anxiety around what lies in the future. The LA songwriter’s ability to paint this lingering feeling of dread so vividly is perhaps the biggest factor in her rapid rise to cultish indie household name; just look at the state of the world right now.

Details

Release date: June 19

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Record label: Dead Oceans

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