It has been almost three years since the release of Phoebe Bridgers debut album Stranger in the Alps, but she hasn’t been twiddling her thumbs. A massive catalogue of collaborations – with Conor Oberst, Lucy Dacius, The National and The 1975 – have all helped refine and cement the more expansive, confident soundscape of her new album Punisher.
The candid lyricism that made her Stranger in the Alps feel so fresh remains, but Punisher moves away from the mostly acoustic feel of her debut and embraces a lusher, more grandiose instrumentation. The arrangements are impressionistic and hazy, light on percussion and heavy with effected guitars, keyboards and double-tracked vocals. The resulting sounds give Punisher a more orchestrated and otherworldly feel.
The sweetness of opening track Garden Song is backed with looping reverb guitar riffs, while the pure pop sounds of Kyoto and Saviour Complex recall the ‘90s emo-pop of Belly and Tanya Donnelly at their best. Graceland Too has a Laurel Canyon vibe courtesy of the addition of banjo and quivering strings and features backing vocals from Bridgers’ boygenius collaborators Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus. Halloween, a duet with Conor Oberst, is the most pared-back but that’s what makes it so compelling, defined by a soft yet thumping drum beat and scraps and whispers of other instruments.
Final track I Know the End turns into an epic, emotional slow-burner, closing the album in a cacophony of drums, brass and an apocalyptic howled group vocal chanting ‘the end is here’.
If her lyrics can occasionally feel like smart tweets (‘When I grow up/ I’m gonna look up/ from my phone and see my life’) they also contain a vivid poignancy that comes from the unfiltered nature of her writing. Across the record’s eleven tracks, she exorcises past relationships, yearns for the feeling of home (‘if I go outside/ I’ll see a tractor beam/ Coming to take me to where I’m from/
I want to go home’), struggles with imposter syndrome and vents her everyday anger. Her sweet falsetto lightens the morbidity, but can also deliver a punch you don’t feel coming.
Like Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Boltcutters, Punisher feels like Bridgers has found exactly the right sound at the right time, pushing herself without forgetting who she is. The sound of that is exhilarating.