Review Summary: >edgy title goes here // shallow reworkings go here
Released in June this year, Phoebe Bridgers' sophomore effort Punisher
has been hailed as a masterfully realised indie-folk-pop classic. In layman’s terms, this means it was a passable outing from a bright-eyed songwriter still not over the cusp of greatness, articulating the anxiety and dissociation of the 2020 zeitgeist precisely as much as she needed for a predictable combination of demographics to inflate her work to oblivion. As is the way of such things, we are now treated to an EP unpacking a handful of Punisher
’s tracks with reworked string arrangements. The result should have been a home run of sorts, a cementation of the mobility that underpins Bridgers’ songwriting. After all, since she found it so natural to translate her craft from the bare bones of acoustic folk to the studio sheen of Punisher
, a full-on immersion into the silver screen-ready airs and graces of string orchestra shouldn’t be a huge step for her at this point.
To this end, Copycat Killer
is an unexpectedly clumsy release and often fails to spotlight the subtitles that brought its tracklist close to excellence. Its clear attraction is that Bridgers’ gorgeous vocals are more prominent here than on the original version, but this is cancelled out by how awkwardly the string pairing tends to clash with her performance. This is so overt that I’ve seen speculations that she directly recycled her vocal tracks from the original album instead of revising them for these versions. Whether or not this is the case is above my pay grade, but one thing’s certain: she sure as hell did not
revise the tempo for her putatively rerecorded vocal track on this version of “Kyoto”! This track is bewildering monolith of a missed opportunity, as it had every reason to be an easy knockout. The new string arrangement is lovely, the original is one of her best pop tracks, the lyrics among the best examples of the tentatively self-deprecating style that she has ridden off since Stranger In The Alps
, and her impeccable vocal tone is front and centre like never before. Everything is in the right place, and yet the spaciousness of the arrangement is completely at odds with the pacing of the vocal melodies. Both parts are individually sound, but make it only a minute in and you’ll be asking yourself why it sounds like those beautiful strings are tripping over her beautiful voice. The result is an uneasy mess.
The remaining three tracks are a mixed bag with respectively mixed relationships with their new arrangements. “Chinese Satellite” probably fares the best; once an overblown Discovery Channel-esque mishmash of forced climaxes and cheesy dynamics, this new version sees it settle into more balanced pacing. Its string arrangement is a much more appropriate vehicle for the song’s rousing progression, able to shift tones with mobility while skirting the cringe of the original’s abrupt approximations of percussive momentousness. On the other hand, “Savior Complex“ is the biggest disappointment here. Given that interplay between the original’s own string arrangement and Bridger’s understated acoustic strumming was probably the most delicate and evocative balance of timbres on all of Punisher
, I’m not sure why it was chosen for a reworking in the first place; the result is unexpectedly bland, the strings serving less as an ethereal makeover and more as the damp clay of a shallow riverbed. The new arrangement is stolid and hamfisted, gratuitously cinematic without any of the intricacy of the original. Bridgers’ spindly melodies feel uncomfortably exposed with this kind of backdrop, and the track plummets from album-defining magic to forgettable kitsch.
Finally, the new version of “Punisher” is neither a hit nor a miss. This one’s string arrangement takes a much more forthright role than the original’s understated keys and accents Bridgers’ vocals forthrightly enough to border on competition. It’s a slightly precarious mix, but both parties carry themselves adequately. The track comes off as a victory lap for the original more than anything else, as was likely intended. This is all well and good within the reworking, but it foregrounds certain flourishes with a newfound sense of cheapness. Perhaps the most sophisticated twist in the original was the point at which Bridgers delivers the unsettling title lyric A copycat killer with a chemical cut
, at which point the chord sequence shifts from its smoothing C# major foundation to an immediately disarming augmented variant. This moment worked so well because the original’s keys were so seamlessly and organically presented, a dense reverie that cocooned Bridgers’ performance with great polish. The EP’s translation of that moment into an interchangeable ultra-direct legato swoop dispels much of the intrigue that the original thrived on, and on a broader level, Bridgers’ superimposition of the striking title lyric into a dinky eye-catcher of an EP title feels like an ungainly magnification of a once precious moment. By this point, that’s the running theme of this EP, and it follows through to the end: her decision to abruptly conclude the original after her oh-so-subtle delivery of the lyric wouldn’t know where to stop.
was once a brief misstep that was swept under the carpet in sequencing; on Copycat Killer
, it becomes a painful synecdoche for the boorishness that runs through almost all of these craftless reworkings.