Phoebe Bridgers’ Indie Rock album Punisher is nightmarish and hopeful all at once.
With no lyrics, DVD Menu forces us to endure a haunting string melody. A softness lurks beneath the surface in the quiet plucking of an acoustic guitar.
‘And when I grow up, I’m gonna look up/ From my phone and see my life’
Bridgers’ dark humour sees her living in a haunted house and going to the movies in Garden Song. The cinema screen becomes a tidal wave. The juxtaposition between murder/nature points to Bridgers’ fascination with good/bad thoughts, and plants the seed that – like a dream – things can fall apart at any moment.
‘I don’t forgive you/ But please don’t hold me to it’
The most upbeat song on Punisher, Kyoto deals with Bridgers’ resentment and the notion of not being able to escape yourself. Bridgers captures the feeling of disappointment that comes from wandering aimlessly through life.
‘What if I told you/ I feel like I know you?/But we never met’
Punisher pays tribute to the late Elliott Smith. Bridgers imagines herself as a ‘Punisher’ – a fan who, when speaking to their idol, has no idea their hero doesn’t care. An artist herself, Bridgers has been on both sides of the fan/artist divide, and understands how meaningful these interactions can be. Equally, she knows how exhausting they can be as the person being idolised.
‘Baby it’s Halloween/And we can be anything’
Halloween delves into a doomed relationship. Conjuring up visions of Donnie Darko, Bridgers creates a tantalising paradox. If we are constantly wearing a mask to please others, then Halloween is the one night we get to be ‘ourselves’. Even so, this doesn’t seem to improve things. Bridgers’ sense of self is questionable, as the song closes with the disheartening refrain:
‘Whatever you want/ I’ll be whatever you want.’
‘I’ve been running around in circles/ Pretending to be myself’
Chinese Satellite may well be the most romantic song on the album. Bridgers questions aliens, religion and doubts the existence of an afterlife. Yet, she is willing to be proven wrong:
‘Because I think when you’re gone, it’s forever/ But you know I’d stand on the corner/ Embarrassed with a picket sign / If it meant I would see you when I die’
The love and hope she feels is worth the potential social embarrassment. As Bridgers concludes, ‘I want to go home’, it is unclear whether ‘home’ is a feeling, place, or person.
‘So I will wait for the next time you want me/ Like a dog with a bird at your door’
What happens when we fall for someone we can’t have? Like a dog with a bird in its teeth, Bridgers is patient with the love she has to give in Moon Song. Her desires exist to the schedule of another person. If this is love, it is one-sided.
‘Baby, you’re a vampire/ You want blood and I promised / I’m a bad liar/ With a savior complex’
Vulnerable in more ways than one, Savior Complex explores the concept of giving everything to another person. Bridgers plays with the desperation in romantic relationships to know everything there is:
‘All the skeletons you hide/ Show me yours, and I’ll show you mine’
Willing to offer everything, there seems to be little reward for this devotion.
‘If you’re a work of art / I’m standing too close / I can see the brushstrokes’
A song about not knowing what you want until you mess it up, ICU is another contender for most romantic – though it is filled with regret and desperation. When everything seems hopeless, we turn to our partners. It’s a shame that this look is tinged:
‘I get this feeling whenever I feel good/ It’ll be the last time’
Phoebe revisits house imagery in this song, which seems to represent the complex emotions waiting for her when she acknowledges the reality of her break-up.
‘Said she knows she lived through it/ To get to this moment’
Graceland Too is the calm before the storm that is the final track in this collection, which appreciates another form of love – what Bridgers calls “caring for somebody who hates themselves”. Hopeful and delicate, the closing refrain slides between thought process and genuine conversation:
‘I would do anything (Whatever you want)/ Whatever she wants (Whatever you want)’
This repetition is sweeter and more optimistic than that of Halloween.
I KNOW THE END
‘Either way/ We’re not alone / I’ll find a new place to be from/ A haunted house with a picket fence/ To float around and ghost my friends’
I Know The End provides a perfect close to the album. Bridgers weaves the threads of Punisher together. We pass the haunted house, a possible alien spaceship, and a billboard that declares:
‘The End is Near’
With references to Dorothy’s journey in The Wizard of Oz, Bridgers plays with the concept of home one last time. The answer is a feeling and not a place, Bridgers seems to suggest.
What begins with a whisper sees the album go out screaming. It is an end built on perseverance. An acceptance of everything that never happened, or that failed to bloom.
Oscillating between existential dread and tentative optimism, Punisher is haunted by the ghosts it creates. Phoebe Bridgers’ masterpiece is one dream you will want to get lost in.