Indie singer/songwriter Phoebe Bridgers's popularity exploded after the release of her 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps. Her sad, sardonic songs were undercut by her dry wit, and her straightforward delivery of emotionally naked material placed her in a lineage of songwriting excellence that included Elliott Smith, Neko Case, and Cat Power. Second solo album Punisher arrives after two high-profile collaborations: a 2018 EP from boygenius, her supergroup with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, and Better Oblivion Community Center, a makeshift band based around songs written by Bridgers and Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst. Back on her own with Punisher, Bridgers offers up a set of hushed narratives that push her music into new, ominous places. After a brief instrumental introduction, "Garden Song" is a gentle blur of acoustic guitars, slow-moving electronics, and lyrics rich with imagery of houses on fire, flatbed trucks covered in roses, and haunted gardens. Baritone harmonies from Jeroen Vrijhoef and the gurgling textures beneath the song add to the strange atmosphere. Much of Punisher follows a similar formula. Vocals on the title track are doubled with robotic Auto-Tune, making lyrics about loneliness and longing all the more detached. Glistening strings on "Chinese Satellite" and the ghostly wind that blows through "Halloween" add intensity to themes of numbness and a struggle to find authentic emotional connections. The several upbeat moments on the album are some of Bridgers' finest work. "Kyoto" is a bright travelog, painting a brilliant picture of a day on tour in Japan marked by feeling unexpectedly empty and displaced. Dark lyrics are contrasted with a tangle of sunny melodies and the bright trumpet lines that move the song along. Bridgers repeats herself a little bit with the country-tinged harmonies of "Graceland Too," which is similar in execution to boygenius, and some of her melodic turns sound like revisitations of earlier songs. The development on Punisher comes in its subtleties. Where Stranger in the Alps was an excellent showcase for Bridgers' songwriting, the arrangements and production were fairly basic. Punisher's use of moody, barely there electronics and creaky instrumentals enhance the uneasy, dissatisfied feeling of the album. Already masterful at creating sad, smart songs, Bridgers reaches new depths with Punisher. It's an album of shockingly self-aware explorations of dark feelings and Bridgers is more willing than ever before to throw herself headlong into the darkness.
by Fred Thomas