Review Summary: Phoebe Bridgers' strengths are on full display here. But her weaknesses are starting to show as well.
On her sophomore solo album, following a few side projects and features on several nondescript indie songs, Phoebe Bridgers seems content to let her voice and lyrics do the heavy lifting. She can coast seemingly forever on her strengths, especially considering that many of her fans would probably be happy to hear her sing names from the phonebook. Honestly, I might be, too. She has a fishhook voice against which struggle is futile. She sounds isolated and cold one moment, then parasocially warm the next, like a new friend you can’t quite gauge yet, the closeness thrilling, the distance unbearable. Such a voice is a weapon, and Bridgers uses it wisely. Songs like “Kyoto” and “I Know the End” are given a propulsive energy as she makes the same melodies sound fresh every time she iterates on them, each line both familiar and completely new.
Her songwriting has yet to catch up. Too much of Punisher
plods musically, disengaging me even as Bridgers’s voice draws me close. This disconnect plagues the record. "Garden Song" is essentially "Smoke Signals" with slightly more energy and a completely unnecessary guest spot in the chorus. The strong lyrics and tender vocal performance on “Halloween” are offset by the vanilla indie backing music, and the last thing the song needed was a Conor Oberst feature, but he shows up at the end, too. His absence in the early parts of the track are the only thing setting it apart from a middling Better Oblivion Community Center song (that is to say, every
BOCC song except for “Chesapeake”). “Graceland Too” is one of the record’s best songs, with major “Cowboy Take Me Away” energy and beautiful accompaniment from her erstwhile boygenius companions Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. Yet there is nothing to justify the song’s existence on a Bridgers solo record rather than a second boygenius release. Perhaps that seems like a petty criticism since the song is so great, but too often Punisher
sounds like indie pastiche, and the guest performances don’t help.
Stranger in the Alps
was an excellent debut with a few problems that were excusable from such a young songwriter. Now that we know Bridgers a little better, Punisher
feels like a slight step down despite the advances on display. Too many of the songs’ flourishes are really just tricks of production rather than genuine songwriting ingenuity. Her ability to turn a phrase, her gorgeous voice, and her sheer charm can justify a lot, but she needs more than those tricks in her bag to sustain what will hopefully be a long and fruitful career.