The second solo album from the prolific singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers is, in both its aesthetic and lyrical clarity of expression, a total triumph. From the liminal delirium of intro “DVD Menu” to the bombastic finish, the 11 tracks on Punisher are a perfect distillation of a particular generational malaise; its lyrics reflect emotional awareness hindered by social disintegration, reflecting the often unfortunate combination of introspection and abstraction of personal interaction in the digital age. Bridgers is never too forward about contemporary themes here, letting their slow reveal come through lyrical precision, and the album’s distinct mood is beautifully reflected in its production. One can hear many of the artist’s roots, of which she is indeed publicly quite open, in her emo-folk sound, but one of the record’s most interesting aspects is Bridgers’ and co-producers Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska’s electronic distortion of live instruments on several tracks. The compression of the acoustic guitar and bass on “Garden Song” lends the track’s arrangement a sense of fragility which perfectly compliments its lyrics about the melancholy of time passing. The whining flute in the background on “Halloween,” shrouded in a raspy synth, externalizes the song’s study of codependency and willful ignorance in a relationship. Punisher is not only remarkable for this brand of acuity and honesty, but also for the unique approach taken to its sonic construction and its ability to capture and sustain a set of specific emotions, both in sound and word, producing a streamlined concatenation of myriad external influences. Rather than openly state the grander significances of its personal content, the record embodies them unmistakably. The directness of the lyrics is at once an indication of the artist’s openness as well as a reflection of the ongoing disappearance of personal privacy, both voluntarily and otherwise — the broken relationships and traumas represented in the lyrics further suggest the consequences of this threat upon identity, while on the other hand, references to conspiracies and anti-government paranoia don’t appear in service of any overt political statement, but rather as a part of its fabric of emotional extremes. In its internalization of an array of social and political circumstances that condition the lives of youth and young adults, Punisher is one of the first great expressions of the shame and tendency toward hopelessness that comes with growing up in a world that can too-readily feel on the precipice of collapse.
Published as part of Top 25 Albums of 2020 — 10-1.