Anthems from an Apocalypse

Photograph by David Lee, collage by Herald Staff

When a friend tells you that they love Phoebe Bridgers, the right thing to ask is, “Have you tried therapy instead?”        

I’m joking. Well, kind of. Such is the devastatingly intimate nature of a Phoebe Bridgers song. One moment, Bridgers will sing about a day off tour spent roaming around Japan and the next she’ll make casual reference to a phone call from an alcoholic family member. “It cost a dollar a minute/ To tell me you’re getting sober,” she recounts in the song “Kyoto” off her newest album Punisher.   

Bridgers doesn’t shy away from wrestling with the destructive aspects of life. It seems as if she’s collected enough misery to fill anyone’s gut with a pool of dread. In “Moon Song,” one of the most delicate songs on the album, Bridgers discusses the harrowing paradox of caring for someone who makes themself impossible to care for: “So I will wait for the next time you want me/ like a dog with a bird at your door,” she explains.     

Bridgers’ new record is a continuation of the candid songwriting that made her debut album, Stranger in the Alps, so successful. In Punisher, her lyrics take on newfound maturity, exemplified by how swiftly she navigates between the universal and the hyper-specific. On the psychedelic dreamscape that is “Garden Song,” Bridgers muses, “I grew up here till it all went up in flames/ Except the notches and the door frames.” The imagery of notches in a door frame is as piercing as it is simple. Bridgers reckons that it might be just enough to trigger a whole onslaught of childhood memories.    

Bridgers’ lyrics conjure images of idleness, love, and mortality— it’s as if someone brought James Joyce into the 21st century and gave him a guitar instead of a pen and a pocketbook. It’s no surprise that a lot of people who like her work have a penchant for the somber melodies of Elliott Smith, or even a compulsion toward the nervous couplets of T.S. Eliot’s famous “J. Alfred Prufrock.” Like in Smith’s and Eliot’s works, depressive characters, wistful to a fault, float through Punisher. There’s probably a correlation between how much time you’ve spent hanging out in empty parking lots in your hometown and how much you like Phoebe Bridgers’ music.      

Although , Punisher isn’t a depressing album. In the record’s final tracks,  Bridgers exchanges apathetic acceptance for surprising bursts of defiance and purpose. In the folksy “Graceland Too,” Bridgers sings about a woman who finds the courage to leave home—to get in her car and start driving across the country. Accompanied by her boygenius bandmates, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, Bridgers insists, “She could do anything she wants to do.” 

The closing track of Punisher, “I Know the End,” takes us on another drive. Bridgers makes it clear that it’s an end-of-times road trip. It’s a song suited for the apocalypse, which means it’s definitely a song suited for 2020. As the track escalates towards its cacophonous crescendo, Bridgers prophesizes, “No, I’m not afraid to disappear/ The billboard said the end is near.”  Bridgers meets the end and embraces it. 

Punisher came out on the last day of the solo cross-country road trip I took from Seattle to New Haven. As I drove east, the days began earlier. The inside of my Toyota Corolla grew more and more humid. I zipped through America’s northern states. Washington, Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana. I woke up in Sandusky, Ohio and realized I’d rather keep driving than arrive at my destination. But I also needed to be somewhere and that somewhere couldn’t be my car, at least not this car, forever. I put on Punisher and drove in a horizontal line across Pennsylvania on an interstate lined by billboards telling me I should listen to God. I chose Phoebe Bridgers instead. She didn’t disappoint.

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