Review Summary: There's a last time for everything
We need more folk artists who are willing to scream at the top of their lungs. For fans of Bridgers and her understated charm, the closing minutes of Punisher
could only be characterized as a complete and utter shock. The album is lucid and tranquil in the face of a modern apocalypse; like laying out on a blanket stargazing while a meteor approaches. Never does Bridgers break character in the face of such calamity: the acoustic guitars sway gently, the drums form a series of muted splashes, and Phoebe’s meticulously crafted melodies float above it all, suspended like apparitions. Yet, during the curtain call ‘I Know The End’, Bridgers drops all pretense and screams hopelessly into the surrounding void. It’s the most honest and cathartic expression of her entire career because of its sheer, raw emotion – which is poignant in a way that no guitar solo or string section could possibly emulate. ‘I Know The End’ is what all of Punisher
builds towards: a moment of private and global-scale reckoning that dares to re-imagine what it means to be a folk/indie singer-songwriter in 2020.
Prior to its climactic ending, Punisher
gradually absorbs the listener with its plodding pace. First impressions can be unforgiving here – the melodies are less immediate than on her debut, the production can at times seem gratuitous, and the lyrics are a bit more difficult to untangle. As with most classic albums, however, Punisher
defines its own atmosphere – this dark, starlit post-apocalyptic snow globe – and the more time you spend in that world, the more you’ll feel like a part of you belongs to it. Whether it’s the mystique of ‘Chinese Satellite’, where Bridgers mourns the loss of a loved one while simultaneously lamenting her own lack of faith (“I want to believe / Instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing” / “Swore I could feel you through the walls / But that's impossible”) – or the more down-to-Earth ‘Graceland Too’ in which she details the struggle of caring about someone who hates herself (to the serenade of a folksy banjo) – Punisher
intertwines the intimate and the profound seamlessly. You’re equally likely to find Bridgers singing about relationships and mental health issues as you are political/religious apocalypses, because in this world they’re one in the same. It could even be argued that ‘I Know The End’ isn’t a song about the end of the world, but rather about losing yourself: “I'm not afraid to disappear / The billboard said The End Is Near.”
takes all these swirling emotions – both on a micro and macro scale – and places them in a state of eerie calm. One common reaction to severe trauma is that the subject will, almost counterintuitively, become inundated by a sense of peace and heightened awareness. It’s not quite denial so much as it is the mind’s inability to digest what just happened, whether it’s a car accident or trying to process 9/11. That sensation feels an awful lot like Punisher
– an album that looks at the world burning around it and retreats inward. As such, it’s both an immensely personal album as well as a commentary on the state of society. Punisher
is a product of the times, but it’s also one that could have only been made by Phoebe Bridgers. She’s the only artist I can think of who has the ambition and elegance to tackle two crumbling worlds at the same time: the one in her mind, and the one outside her doorstep. It's an album characterized by its finality; a series of lasts
in a time where preparing for the end is starting to feel less and less absurd.