Like many people, I’ve been spending a lot of time alone lately. Time alone leads to time for reflection, and that leads to a lot of tossing and turning and recounting old mistakes as ambulances wail in the background. After a while, you begin to wonder if you’re a ghost haunting your own apartment, doomed to pace this single short hallway for all of eternity because of some long-forgotten, but clearly grave, sin. Coronavirus has been a tragedy in slow motion, and many of us have been reporting conflicted feelings of jittery dissatisfaction brought on by an unvarying procession of days where everything is fine—I’m indoors, I’m employed, I have food to eat—and deeply not fine at the same time.
And whether she intended to do so or not, Phoebe Bridgers has created a musical monument to our dissociative age with Punisher. It’s an album about sleepless nights and sinking feelings in the pit of your stomach, wrapped in a musical package that’s both feather-light and lush enough to run your fingers through. We open with the glitchy instrumental “DVD Menu” before transitioning into the deceptively grounded “Garden Song,” a tune of healing and of rest. “The doctor put her hands over my liver/ She told me my resentment’s getting smaller,” she sings, wondering if she’s actually getting taller from all this wholesome homebound living. But the feeling doesn’t last.
Opening with the reedy sounds of a cheap synthesizer and horns from Bright Eyes’ Nathaniel Walcott, “Kyoto” has a twee quality reminiscent of Belle & Sebastian—and much as it often is for the Scottish cardigan-popsters, the foundation of this upbeat tune is cracking under Bridgers’ feet. “That song is about being in Japan for the first time, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go, playing my music for people who really want to hear it, and feeling...bad,” Bridgers says in a press release, a restlessness that bleeds through in lyrics like, “I wanted to see the world/ Then I flew over the ocean/ And I changed my mind.”
As if to underline how short-lived happiness can be, the rest of Punisher stays on a more hushed, dreamier keel. Bridgers’ high, breathy voice cuts through layers of ethereal atmosphere on tentative love songs like “Punisher” and “Savior Complex,” backed by delicate guitar and poignant violin. Presented with freedom after being deemed “no longer a danger to herself or others,” the similarly halting heroine of the lyrical folk ballad “Graceland Too” isn’t quite sure where to go. Dreams, sleep, ghosts, and vampires haunt the smartly turned lyrics, as do the sirens on their way to the hospital near Bridgers’ home. “I used to joke that if they woke you up, somebody better be dying,” she says of these piercing wails in the opening verse of “Halloween.” Then she started to feel their spirits seeping through the walls.
Perhaps inevitably, hints of Bridgers’ other projects, Boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center, can be heard on Punisher. And the band is ultimately what pulls Bridgers out of her funk, as five-and-a-half-minute closer “I Know The End” flows from a lonesome slice of touring life to a stirring primal scream driven by pounding drums, swelling orchestration, and a ragged chorus of voices shouting, “The end is here!” Yes, it’s an indie-rock cliché straight out of a mid-’00s Arcade Fire record. And Bridgers thinks it’s pretty funny, chuckling and hissing out a scratchy growl in those last few seconds before Punisher goes quiet. “When I can’t sleep, it’s just a matter of time before I’m hearing things,” Bridgers sings on the hazy “Chinese Satellite.” Lucky for us, what she hears is absolutely gorgeous.