“The end is here” are the last words on Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers’s sophomore record — and as Phoebe and her band belt out this mantra over a cacophony of buzzing guitars, brazen horns, and guttural howls, one is inclined to believe them. Two years after its initial release, Punisher has not only stood the test of time but has also marinated in the global chaos and uncertainty of the world since June 18, 2020. This dark, atmospheric folk album may be more relevant now than ever since its conception.
Dark grey clouds begin to roll in on “DVD Menu,” the record’s short, ghostly intro track — an instrumental that perfectly sets the stage for the journey to come. “Garden Song” quickly follows, sporting a psychedelic lurch and instrumental almost entirely in the lower half of the equalization. It is a soft, muddy, faded cut that sounds as if it is being played out of a tube amp or an antique stereo system. Phoebe’s voice pierces the misty fog, perfectly clear and all alone in the high end of the mix. She is a bright, white ray of sunshine cutting through the clouds, musing on themes from domestic fantasy to murdering skinheads, as well as her own personal childhood experiences. Lyrics specifically detailing her dreams and striking doctors’ appointments highlight one of Phoebe’s greatest assets: her ability to simultaneously be creatively abstract and deeply personal.
If “Garden Song” has our heads in the clouds, “Kyoto” sees us soaring above them, fueled by a constant chugging of guitars, a four-on-the-floor drumbeat, and an explosive chorus. It is hard to tell just how serious Phoebe is as she raises her voice an octave and simply belts the phrase “I want to kill you.” She sounds upset, yet, almost comically ambivalent, and it is likely because her opinion of her father, the subject of the song, is as conflicted as the tone she chose for these words. One thing that we can be sure of, however, is the addictive quality of the harmonies and resolution of Phoebe’s vocal melody. Bright, warm, trumpets echo her voice, calling back to her as if in conversation, and a good one at that. “Kyoto” ends in crescendo, and our time in the sky is greeted by nightfall in the form of the album’s title track. Twinkling stars and heavily filtered backing vocals accompany Phoebe’s lament on 90s singer/songwriter Elliott Smith, one of her greatest idols and inspirations. This song is a love song, but not a traditional one. It details the love of someone you’ve never met who has changed your life and will never know it, a concept all the more heartbreaking upon learning that Phoebe lives in the same east Los Angeles neighborhood that Smith was mysteriously stabbed to death in all those years ago.
“Moon Song” takes the sultry first half of the record, building into a fantastically depressing climax. It is a story of unrequited love (most likely written about Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes). With some of the most scathingly personal lyrics Phoebe has ever put to paper (“I’ll wait for the next time you want me / like a dog with a bird at your door”), sparkling guitars, and low, crunchy drums, “Moon Song” is likely one of the most gut-wrenching ballads in recent singer/songwriter memory. If Phoebe could give the subject of this song the moon, she would. Yet, as she attests during the song’s bridge, it did not and will not ever happen, and you can hear the pain in her fragile wail. Phoebe’s name itself has origins in Greek mythology, coming from the Titan associated with prophecy and, relevantly, the moon.
“I Know the End” comes to life with warped, filtered, static synth layers and angelic guitar picking. If the album has been a journey, this is the ascension. Phoebe sounds as if she is singing directly to the listener, speaking to you in beautifully abstract detail about her own little slice of the human experience. This song is the figurehead, the legend, and the mission statement of Punisher; the album does not work without this track. After a brief violin break, Marshall begins to keep time on his hi-hat and, slowly but surely, “I Know the End” builds not just to its own climax, but to the climax of the entire record — and dare I say, Phoebe’s discography. However, the track is arguably bigger than even that.
This record is the climax of modern folk music during the age of misinformation and confusion, and of a generation of depression and disappointment for a broken system. Punisher’s genius is its personal applicability. By digging into the excruciatingly specific details of her own life, Phoebe Bridgers has shown us that we are far from alone. She describes her experiences in such a way that is so specific to her, yet so relatable to her listeners. Her perspective is uniquely hers, but is simultaneously that of a generation. It is not a stretch to suggest that Punisher has changed popular folk music from a production standpoint, with its many filters, dropped drums, and haunting harmonies, to its own, new sound, one that is sure to influence the folk of the near future. More importantly, though, Phoebe is a new kind of voice for a tiring and increasingly vapid popular music scene. In a field of status quo sell-outs, Punisher stands out as an authentic and unique album. Even in its nihilistic declaration of the impending collapse of Western society, it gives a kind of comfort and hopes to its listeners. Phoebe’s stories are hers, but they are also all of ours, and that is what makes this record so great. Punisher makes heartbreak and Armageddon beautiful — perhaps a necessary viewpoint for today’s world. And yeah, I suppose: the end is here.