Phoebe Bridgers is either a preeminent emerging songwriter or simply a product of the indie rock hype machine, depending on who you ask. The release of her sophomore album, “Punisher,” on June 18 was accompanied by a substantial media blitz featuring profiles in The New Yorker, The Guardian and even Playboy. Her lyrics are wry and topical but acutely personal, her soundscapes tender and dreamy. In other words, she’s tailor-made for every thrift-store shopping, weed-vaping indie kid out there — which makes it hard to tell whether the buzz around her is legitimate or the product of her ability to appeal to the kinds of people who make their living writing and talking about music. In the final analysis, both narratives contain some truth.
Bridgers released her first album, “Stranger in the Alps,” in 2017. That album is chock-full of references to her abusive relationship with singer-songwriter Ryan Adams, equal parts excoriating and wistful. “Motion Sickness,” the second track, is an immediate highlight. A sardonic teardown of Adams, “Motion Sickness” is punctuated by a masterful chorus, in which Bridgers’ falsetto drifts effortlessly over a driving drumbeat and fuzzy guitars. For once abandoning her tendency to be precious, Bridgers goes for the emotional jugular from the opening line ― “I hate you for what you did / But I miss you like a little kid.” Moments of such exhilarating honesty appear sporadically on “Stranger in the Alps,” but no song manages to top “Motion Sickness.”
Her latest effort, “Punisher,” continues her development as a songwriter, one whose careful eye for detail compensates for sometimes dreary, stagnant music. When compared to her debut album, the production on “Punisher” is more electronic and sometimes eerie. “Stranger in the Alps,” with the exception of a few songs, was first and foremost a folk rock album. On “Punisher,” however, Bridgers experiments with texture and timbre, giving tracks like “I Know the End” a progressive rock feel. That song, the best on the album, culminates with an unforgettable crescendo that features a brass freakout and a chorus of vocalists chanting that “the end is here,” ending the record on a downright spooky note. “Punisher” sometimes seems haunted — even down to the album cover, which features Bridgers standing under a shadowy mountain range in skeleton pajamas — but that moment is by far the most goosebump inducing.
The biggest issue with “Punisher” is the scarcity of such moments. On much of the album, Bridgers is content to quietly hover over sparse instrumental backing, spilling out impressionistic thoughts. This approach does create a unique atmosphere, but that atmosphere comes at the expense of songs that reach true excellence. The middle of the album particularly struggles in this respect ― tracks like “Punisher,” “Halloween” and “Savior Complex” are all similarly subdued. These songs are not bad, but putting them so close together in the tracklisting certainly tests the patience of all but the most devoted listener.
Thankfully, the standout “ICU” soon follows, delivering Bridgers’ most heartbreaking vocal performance on the album. As much as her lyrics tend to dominate the conversation around her music, Bridgers’ voice is more crucial to her success as an artist. It’s her talent for slipping in and out of different moods — innocent, caustic, passionate — while staying true to a song’s essence that elevates her beyond the status of indie it-girl. When she sings “I used to light you up / Now I can’t even get you to play the drums,” all the tension built up during the gloomier moments of the album dissipates. “ICU” is a thunderstorm on a hot summer day, a climax that clears the air and signifies the beginning of the album’s end.
“Punisher,” as inspired as it often is, doesn’t quite feel like the breakthrough many were anticipating from Phoebe Bridgers this time around. In some ways, that actually shows great restraint and maturity — rather than feeling compelled to give her audience what they wanted, Bridgers was comfortable delivering the quiet, reflective music she wanted to make. Even so, the best thing that can be said about the album is that it continues to provide evidence that Bridgers is capable of a masterpiece. There’s no question she has all the pieces and that someday she will put them together.