I have never wanted to be a character

There’s a moment in every action movie, whether it’s John Wick or Kung-Fu Panda, where the hero gets to prove that they are, in their own way, an undisputed badass.

It’s an essential, character-building concept — one that’s usually built up by training montages, revenge-spurring tragedies or supernatural origin stories. But when that moment finally happens, it’s always obvious.

Punisher is Phoebe Bridgers’ badass moment. On her latest record, released almost three years after her critically acclaimed debut, the Los Angeles-based singer is in total, fully realized command of her songwriting power.

The album is a career-defining effort, with glowing reviews in Pitchfork, the Guardian and The New York Times christening the 25-year-old as a world-builder; a lyrical, vocal and instrumental talent capable of creating music doesn’t fit into any genre except its own. 

Bridgers’ sophomore record takes place in its own universe. It is, in the best sense of the word, a vibe. Much like Bridgers herself — with unmistakable ghost-white hair and a Steve Jobsian knack for wearing the same color scheme every day — Punisher is so clearly one thing; it’s part of a singular vision.

That vision is clear from the first seconds of “Garden Song,” the album’s first complete track that features more than a few of Bridgers’ 10,000 signature moves. It’s a track about solitude and longing, two subjects that have long been a fixture of the singer’s confessional lyrics. They’re also topics that float perfectly from Bridgers’ piercing, somberly earnest voice — a pairing she’s used throughout her short career. 

But she isn’t just drawing up the same old plays. Much like The Wire or the first 6 seasons of Game of Thrones, Bridgers is at her best when her universe is at its broadest. 

Punisher takes everything the 25-year-old has introduced us to before — her everyman, near-mundane anecdotes; her whisper-coated vocals; her plucking background banjos; her reverb-soaked electric guitars — and expands it, stretching its limits to the absolute final point at which it seemingly might break open, but never does. 

That relentless unfurling allows for songs like “Graceland Too,” which isn’t a country ballad but actually a Phoebe Bridgers Country Ballad. The song’s resumé (twangy guitars, soaring fiddles, lyrics about road trips, reflections on Elvis) would easily earn it some awards looks at the Country Music Awards — but with Bridgers at the helm, it’s just another stunning, signature moment.

That’s not to say the album is free of outside influences, but its guests are so closely part of Bridgers’ own spirit that they feel less like an intrusion and more like an ensemble. It also helps that these guest stars — like Lucy Dacus and Conor Oberst — literally perform in other bands with Bridgers (Boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center, respectively) outside of the record.

It’s a familiarity that extends beyond who Bridgers chooses to include on her albums. In making Punisher so distinctly her own, she manages to create a setting that’s painful — almost surgically — intimate. Its pain is exact; its revelations are mathematical.

Bridgers shared nearly as much in a post-album interview with Rolling Stone, in which she explained her commitment to full, obvious vulnerability in her songs.

“I have never wanted to be a character, and I have never wanted to hide stuff about myself,” she said. “I want to normalize personhood. Songs are like therapy to me: I’m just like a normal person, going to therapy.”

In the context of Punisher’s revealing, usually gutting landscape, normalcy is relatability. No one sounds like Bridgers, but everyone feels like her.

That idea is never clearer than on “I Know The End,” the nearly six-minute track that brings the album to a close. It’s nothing short of epic, with crashing drums and triumphant horns flying overhead. The song ends with Bridgers, with pure anguish and rage, screaming her freaking lungs out. 

As the music fades away, there’s nothing left but Bridgers, screaming until she coughs. She’s by herself as always, showing us exactly how she feels.

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