Phoebe Bridgers Explores Trauma and Tragedy on Sophomore Record “Punisher”

Phoebe Bridgers Explores Trauma and Tragedy on Sophomore Record “Punisher”

On her long-awaited consecution to her 2017 debut, Phoebe Bridgers showcases prolific lyricism and meticulous melodies in a triumphant return to solo releases.

At the intersection of indie rock, folk, and emo, Phoebe Bridgers stands poised to be amongst the most painstakingly genuine artists and adept songwriters of our generation. Punisher is the sophomore record of the 25-year-old Pasadena native, following a critically acclaimed 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps. Not one for taking breaks, Bridgers spent the intermittent years pursuing various side projects, including a collaboration with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus on the EP boygenius and an album with Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes under the joint pseudonym, Better Oblivion Community Center. This latest work is the sonic equivalent of watching a storm roll in from a secluded vantage point – and this comparison could even be extended to her sound as a whole. Bridgers’s vocals are understated yet conversational. In this record, she tackles themes of trauma, carrying the jaded air of an onlooker of her own experience and the human condition. 

While many of us are  confronting the discomfort of self-examination for the first time, (when you’re left alone with yourself, there’s not too much else to focus on), Bridgers has mastered the notion of reflection. Her debut can best be described as a coming-of-age project undertaking all the good and bad shit that had affected her life so far. Punisher is a revision of many of the same elements from the perspective of someone who has grown from those experiences, but in many ways remains captive to the psyche those experiences have bred. Even the album’s title is a remark on revisiting and nearly over-exhausting topics of her own obsession, whether it be mental complexities or her more pinpointable infatuation with Elliot Smith. “Punisher” is probably the most discernible showcase of Smith’s musical influence on Bridgers’s music to date – the thin veil of discrepancy is entirely lifted on the album’s title track, which appears to directly address the late singer. The lyrics illustrate aimless wandering and are underscored by an undying sense of connection, despite being alone. This is amongst the most humanizing and humbling depictions of Bridgers’s own idolizations on this album.

“What if I told you I feel like I know you
But we never met?
And here everyone knows you’re the way to my heart
Hear so many stories of you at the bar
Most times alone, and some looking your worst
But never not sweet to the trust funds and punishers”

 “Garden Song”, which lacks a radio-consumable hook or tempo, surprisingly assumes the critical double role of the album’s first single and its opening track. (It follows an absolutely chilling instrumental introduction,  “DVD Menu”, presenting an ironic contrast to the uplifting soundtrack we’re accustomed to hearing on a navigation screen). “Garden Song”’s placement is as crucial as it is unusual: it represents Punisher as a whole, preserving the authenticity of the record and rejecting the notion that any artistic work should have to fit into one canned configuration. It also aptly sets the tone of the album to follow with an acknowledgement of past resentment and an aspiration to move on (“And when I grow up / I’m gonna look up from my phone and see my life”). Described by Bridgers on Twitter as “My new song about murder”, “Garden Song” depicts a garden obscuring the burial site of what one can assume is a character personifying hatred (“When your skinhead neighbor goes missing”).  Regardless of whether this represents an internal desire to eradicate white supremacy in its most literal sense or rather signifies a dialogue with Bridgers’s past self regarding the life she left behind, “Garden Song” embodies the growth that allowed this record’s conception.

The track “Chinese Satellite” is appropriate in its placement at the midpoint of the album as it is thematically representative of Punisher’s depiction of apathy.  “Chinese Satellite” relates to the monotonous task of going on a run (“Running around in circles”, Bridgers puts it bluntly), and it keeps in tone with the fatigue of feeling like you’re leading a mundane existence. The track is a pleading lamentation for the force that catalyzes a diversion from normalcy, underscored by a resolute sense of hope for its existence.

The song closing this record encapsulates the moment in which the storm finally travels far enough to reach the vantage point you’ve fled to, and you’re forced to face the torrents you were previously so disconnected from. “I Know The End” is ominous in its titling and tragic in its lyricism (“No, I’m not afraid to disappear / The billboard said the end is near”), and it is the first forthright detailing of the disdain Bridgers feels towards being on the road. Her status as a touring musician is amongst the main distinctions between her life during the production of her first and second albums, and it shows.


“Somewhere in Germany but I can’t place it
Man, I hate this part of Texas
Close my eyes, fantasize
Three clicks and I’m home
When I get back I’ll lay around
And I’ll get up and lay back down
Romanticize the quiet life
There’s no place like my room”


Culminating in a crescendo of crashing symbols, abrasive instrumentation and tumultuous screaming, the album in its entirety feels like a build-up to the climax of this song. In this way, Punisher feels almost apocalyptic in nature – a narrative from an omniscient and hardened assessor. Even so, Bridgers refutes a descent to total dejection with airs of optimism and tongue-in-cheek drollness in her lyricism that have reliably charmed fans throughout her career (“I hate your mom / I hate it when she opens her mouth”). Bridgers has a unique viewpoint of the world, and an astute understanding beyond her years. On this record, she brings an infectious sentiment that we couldn’t ignore if we tried.

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