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Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher: Music of the Haunted Times

Phoebe Bridgers,
Dead Oceans, 2020

Should we call the new sound of American independent music today "post-folk rock"? I was tempted to call it ‘new folk’ but then I realised, the 1960s (especially Dylan) may have already given us 'new folk'—see the Bob Dylan and the New Folk Movement LP (various artists, 2013). Whatever its name, it sounds intelligent, fresh, sometimes spiritual or pastoral and rebellious at the same time, with raw emotions and strong personal songwriting aesthetics.

Along with artists like Julien Baker, Noah Gundersen, Lucy Dacus, and other extremely talented, young, multi-genre multi-instrumentalists (Baker and Gundersen in particular)—a generation of musicians she has collaborated with and those I have been following for the past few years now—Bridgers, who is not a new artist by any means, is surely a voice to reckon with.

While her work with Baker and Dacus for Boygenius borders on indie rock, folk and grunge pop; her collaboration with Conor Oberst for Better Oblivion Community Center is mostly roots rock. However, her solo work is versatile and brilliant. Rolling Stone (June, 2020) terms her sound as emo folk and attributes her influences as Warren Zevon, Joan Didion, Jackson Browne and John Prine.

Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridger and Julien Baker (from left)

Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridger and Julien Baker (from left)

In the lyrics to the first track of her second album, "Garden Song," Bridgers writes:

“The doctor put her hands over my liver
She told me my resentment's getting smaller…”

It is a song that grows as we listen to it minutely.

Not to mention, the haunting bass part taken as a second vocal that really works across the song, and as she sings:

“I get everything I want
I have everything I wanted.”

Worth mentioning here, that there is something about the intro and especially the outro of the album that I feel defines the character of the artist.

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher, Dead Oceans, 2020

Phoebe Bridgers, Punisher, Dead Oceans, 2020

Of "Jogging and Aliens"

In Chinese Satellite, a relatively underrated song in an album of eleven wonderfully woven, under casted tracks, Bridgers mourns a dead friend and converses with the person:

“Drowning out the morning birds
With the same three songs over and over
I wish I wrote it, but I didn't so I learn the words”


“You were screaming at the Evangelicals
They were screaming right back from what I remember
When you said I will never be your vegetable
Because I think when you're gone it's forever
...If it meant I would see you
When I die”

Phoebe Bridgers and Noah Gundersen

Phoebe Bridgers and Noah Gundersen

Haunted as a metaphor

The themes of loss, broken faith and self-destructive love that run through her first album Stranger in the Alps, 2017 finds new meaning in her second. The lyrics are sometimes filled with raw emotions, sometimes wistful. The soundscapes (which is noteworthy because of the use of many uncommon instruments) are dreamy yet unsettling. In songs like Punisher and Halloween, Bridgers explores her Emo sound to the fullest. She writes:

“But I can count on you to tell me the truth
When you've been drinking, and you're wearing a mask

“They killed a fan down by the stadium
Was only visiting, they beat him to death

Baby, it's Halloween
And we can be anything”

And the haunting hum with its aftertaste as the song fades:

“…Whatever you want, be whatever you want” that Conor Oberst hums along.

There’s eeriness, a feeling of deep loss, there is Trap, and there is addiction. If not, a silent Emo angst that runs across these songs, especially the title track Punisher, which Bridgers shared, is about the late American singer-songwriter Elliott Smith:

“The drugstores are open all night
The only real reason I moved to the east side
I love a good place to hide in plain sight”

“Man, I wish that I could say the same
I swear I'm not angry, that's just my face
A copycat killer with a chemical cut
Either I'm careless or I wanna get caught”

The use of the “haunted” troupe across the lyrics and the soundscapes of the album seems to me something more than its literal use. Haunted as a metaphor seems to be a reflection of the horrors of the times we live in and the consequences of the refuge and escape routes we often seem to seek through mind alerting substances. A failed attempt at making this existential reality less brutal.

Kyoto: Quarter-life angst and disappointments

The soundscape of the song Kyoto for me is a fresh splash of memory from the 1980s with everything about it that is new, now revisited. From the flute intro to its lyrics that celebrate a sort of an idea of inertia, the idea of not doing. Nothing is ever imposed. Like depression itself.

“Day off in Kyoto, got bored at the temple
…The band took the speed train, went to the arcade
I wanted to go, but I didn't”

“… you wrote me a letter
But I don't have to read it”

And a recently released video that smells of CyberPunk sarcasm. If not, of frustration and despair. Though it may sound upbeat, dreamy and distorted, it is rather an unsettling song.

While, a review in Independent, UK states that the song is about a fling she had with the noted American singer-songwriter Ryan Adams which eventually became emotionally abusive (Independent, June 2020); however, in a January 2021 interview with MTV (about her second album, its Grammy nominations and her method of song writing), Bridgers shares that she wrote the song about her father, specifically her being mad with her father. She also adds that Kyoto is sort of a sequel to Motion Sickness.

“I'm gonna kill you
If you don't beat me to it”

“I don't forgive you
But please don't hold me to it”

"I wanted to see the world
Through your eyes until it happened
Then I changed my mind.”

And she ends the song with:

“Guess I lied
I'm a liar
Who lies

'Cause I'm a liar”

But then again, in Savior Complex, a striking, depressing song she adds:

“I’m a bad liar
With a savior complex”

Never afraid, Bridgers knows all that is pastoral and the dystopian

She works in spaces between them. Ballad like love songs in the album such as Moon Song and I see you (aka ICU) have rather unsettling lyrics. To describe them best you couldn't have / Stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody”:

“We hate Tears in Heaven
But it's sad that his baby died
And we fought about John Lennon
Until I cried”
(Moon Song)

“If you’re a work of art
I’m standing too close
I can see the brush strokes”

“…Let the dystopian morning light pour in” (I see you)

In Graceland Too, (Which, for some reason reminds me of ketchum ID by Boygenius) Bridgers takes us through a pastoral-folk ride with strokes of banjo and waves of a violin as she makes “…up her mind and laced up her shoes/ … she walked outside without an excuse”

“She could go home, but she's not going to
So she picks a direction, it's ninety to Memphis
Turns up the music so thought don't intrude
Predictably winds up thinking of Elvis”

And the striking harmony at the end:

“Whatever she wants
Whatever she wants”

The final track is a stab on an idea of a song. Both the lyrical and the compositional idea behind “I know the end” sort of create the many possibilities of what Phoebe Bridgers could be and probably even, what she doesn’t want to be:

“I'm always pushing you away from me
…..And when I call, you come home
A bird in your teeth”

If not, the hopelessness of a dystopian vision:

“Windows down, scream along
To some America first rap, country song
A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall
Slot machines, fear of God

Windows down, heater on
Big bolts of lightning hanging low
Over the coast, everyone's convinced
It's a government drone or an alien spaceship”

The usage of various string and other instruments in the sound collage of the song that breaks into thrash metal riffs and a death growl is just a musical magic. The song brings to me a desperate dream, unnerving; an accident, an idea gone wrong dystopian anger of a young generation, as she concludes:

Either way, we're not alone
I'll find a new place to be from
A haunted house with a picket fence
To float around and ghost my friends
No, I'm not afraid to disappear
The billboard said, "The end is near"
I turned around, there was nothing there
Yeah, I guess the end is here

The end is here…

The end is here…

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Goirick Brahmachari

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