Album Review, Reflection: Phoebe Bridgers’ Punisher


May 7, 2021

Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers released her second studio album Punisher on June 17, 2019. I found Phoebe’s alternative rock music a few months back accidentally while I was listening to a pre-made Spotify playlist dedicated to emerging artists. As I was instantly hooked by her poetic lyrics and artistic instrumental choices, I began to listen to her frequently. This eventually led to this album becoming one of my favorites of all-time and one worthy of review at that. 

The album has 11 tracks overall that total to 40:42 for one rotation through it. In this review, I will be discussing the meanings that each song individually conveyed to me, what I think they might mean, and my favorite lyrics that Phoebe wrote in each.

Track 1: “DVD Menu”
“DVD Menu” serves as more of an interlude to introduce listeners to the album overall. A minor violin playing behind a bass guitar being strummed creates a feeling of suspense, dread, and almost discomfort in a weird way. The interlude is traditional in the sense that there are no lyrics being sung, as this part of an album mainly serves as a creative space to add personality to the overall piece. I think that the instrumental in this song is very pretty, but it obviously doesn’t have the appeal that other lyrical songs have on the album. Overall, it served as a great way for Phoebe to set the tone of Punisher and ease listeners into her make-believe rock world she has created. 

Track 2: “Garden Song”

“Garden Song” is definitely one of my favorite songs on the album. In this track, it seems like Phoebe is reminiscing on an old relationship that she regrettably lost connection to. It begins by Bridgers telling the past lover about the house across the street and the artificial roses they’re gluing to their lawn, maybe alluding to the artificial past Bridgers felt that she had, saying specifically, “I grew up here ‘til it all went up in flames, except the notches in the doorframe.” The overall soft and meaningful vocals of the song create a conversational, loving feeling, further making it seem like she is talking to a past lover. A sense of loss with this person is expressed through Phoebe saying that she’s not sure when this person “got taller,” something we hear often from grandparents we haven’t seen in a while. 

Overall, I feel as though that the song compares the desire to start and plant a garden “up on the hill” to the artist’s want to start and rekindle this lost relationship, in such a nurturing way that someone would water, weed, and take care of their garden. My favorite verse from this song is: “The doctor put her hand over my liver. She told my resentment’s getting smaller.” I love the way that Phoebe ultimately compares her liver health to a sense of resentment she has with this person, indicating that since she’s not drinking as much, she isn’t thinking about this specific person as much. I appreciate the lyrical depth Bridgers creates in this song and the hopeful mood created towards its end. 

Track 3: “Kyoto”

Doubly nominated for a Grammy, “Kyoto” is the most upbeat song on Punisher. This song definitely gives me riding-down-a-tall-hill-on-a-skateboard vibes and creates some sense of freedom. Phoebe is reflecting on her first major tour stop in Kyoto, Japan, and the complicated feelings that came along with it. She clearly feels free, singing, “Day off in Kyoto / Got bored at the temple / Looked around at the 7-Eleven”, but soon encounters a call from her father, who she has a damaged relationship with due to his struggle with drug addiction. Phoebe doesn’t want to deal with this relationship while on tour and talks about not forgiving her father, instead going on drives with her brother and feeling like she is flying. There is a clear, musically-appealing want for freedom.

I appreciate the feelings Phoebe expresses of wanting to not think about something bad and just trying to distract herself from the problem altogether. This reality really resonated with me and could be seen as relatable by a majority of other listeners, too. My favorite lyrics are, “You called me on a pay phone / They still got pay phones / And it cost a dollar a minute / To tell me you’re getting sober / And you wrote me a letter / But I don’t want to read it.” It was clever of her to say that it cost a dollar a minute to just hear that he’s getting sober, suggesting that this is all they usually talk about and it’s become more of a fee than an enjoyable interaction. Overall, this song switches up the slow, ballad-dominant feel of Punisher and is great to drive around in the car to. 

Track 4: “Punisher”

The title track of the entire album, “Punisher” sends a different message than what one may think the first time they listen. As stated in past interviews, Phoebe is a major fan of deceased American musician Elliot Smith. In this song, she recalls being outside of his old house after wandering around town aimlessly and the thoughts that came along with it, mostly being a wish that she could have known him. She sings, “What if I told you / I feel like I know you / Even though we never met.” She goes on to admit that she herself would be a punisher, someone she describes as being a fan that just never knows when to stop talking and bugs an artist endlessly. The song serves as a tribute to her favorite artist and her longing for wanting to meet Elliot.

When I first listened to this song, I immediately thought that Phoebe was outside of a crush’s house where they lived with their current lover. She hadn’t met this person yet, and they had no idea who she was, but she feels like she knows him before they’ve even met. I love the almost ghostly, haunting mood that this song creates through describing an unattainable relationship, the relatability of her storytelling, and the beautiful instrumental she chose to include. “Punisher” is probably one of my favorite songs on the album. 

Track 5: “Halloween”

This song is definitely in my top 5 for favorites on Punisher. In this song, Phoebe talks majorly of some lover or close person in her life that seems to never show her who they really are. The low-tempo, heavy bass song shows Phoebe reflecting on where she’s at in life in her relationships and actual location. She starts the song off by saying that she hates living by the hospital, possibly alluding to some irony regarding her expressed mental health struggles and fascination with death. Phoebe goes on to say “Baby it’s Halloween / and we can be anything,” comparing the false persona this important person shows to her and a Halloween mask. This person can be “whatever you want,” suggesting that Phoebe has gotten used to their shows and has become okay with it in their relationship. 

I really like this track because it has such a relaxing and lethargic sound to it. Phoebe generally sings with a breathier tone overall, but her analogous lyrics combined with the instrumental complement her vocals even more in this song specifically. Personally, I identified with the feeling that someone important to you is constantly changing how they act towards you and loved that she compared this behavior to something as common as a Halloween mask. It makes this relationship reality really easy to understand and picture for yourself. 

Track 6: “Chinese Satellite”

The sixth track on Punisher really screams “leap of faith” to me. Phoebe is clearly lost in some situation regarding herself and is found in a place of confusion. Specifically, this song addresses her lack of faith in any God and an uncertainty about who she is since there is no existential beliefs to base her living off of. Phoebe says, “I want to believe / Instead, I look at the sky and feel nothing”. Frustrated with the lack of tangibility in any sort of her spiritual beliefs, she eventually results to wishing on a Chinese satellite to find out who she is and if there is an all-powerful being. 

I think we could all admit to having times in our lives where we questioned who we are, what there is out there, and everything else in-between. Phoebe captures this very reality on her sixth track on Punisher and gives something to listen to when you’re lost with practically everything. My favorite lyrics from this track are, “Because I think when you’re gone it’s forever / But you know I’d stand on the corner / Embarrassed with a picket sign / If it meant I would see you / When I die.” The alien-like unfamiliarity with the world and herself Phoebe creates through these lines further demonstrate her lyrical genius and ability to simplify otherwise abstract and chaotic emotions. 

Track 7: “Moon Song

“Moon Song,” one of my many favorites on this album, dives into the inequitable relationship that Phoebe seems to be involved with. At the start of the song, she compares her lover to a body of water that she dived into and now can’t touch the bottom of. She tells of having to carry him home after he got drunk and kissed another woman even though they were together. Her loyalty to this lover is almost toxic, referring to herself by saying, “So I will wait for the next time you want me / Like a dog with a bird at your door.” Phoebe’s hypnotizing vocals and instrumental works combined with these imaginative and artistic lyrics truly capture what it’s like being in a toxic, inequitable relationship that one may willfully choose to remain in. 

Like many of Bridgers’ other songs, I love the real-life feelings she transforms into captivating songs like this one. Emotionally abusive relationships like the one she elaborates on in this track are more regularly occurring than most people may think. Phoebe provides a safe space and beautiful song for those who may be experiencing the same things she was at the time. The song concludes in her saying that she would give her lover the moon, something clearly impossible but still worth trying because of the level of dedication Phoebe has to this person.

Track 8: “Savior Complex”

In this track, Phoebe dives into yet another realm of her mental processes. As the track name may suggest, Bridgers talks about her definite savior complex she has in relationships with people. A savior complex is the urge to find broken people, get them to admit the problems and trauma that they may have, and ultimately try to fix them. Bridgers tells of lovers shedding crocodile tears while sharing their problems and the various “nightmares” she saves those close to her from. Ultimately, she tells her story of trying to heal a specific love interest she’s involved with while still keeping her own issues to herself. 

I myself have a savior complex, so this was a really interesting way to view the mental process from another perspective. This song, like many others on the track, has an almost hypnotizing sound that may allude to the persuasive stance she puts herself in to get her lover to share their deepest secrets. I appreciate the connection that can be made from Moon Song, which depicted Phoebe as draining herself over saving someone she loved, and “Savior Complex,” where she openly admits to carrying out such draining actions. My favorite lyrics from this track are, “Drift off on the floor / I drag you to the shore / Sweating through the sheets / You’re gonna drown in your sleep for sure.”

Track 9: “ICU”

ICU is the best example of Phoebe Bridgers’ mastery of wordplay and lyrical genius. In this track, the artist once again talks about a lover she is involved with, but one that is actually healthy for her unlike the past men she wrote about. She says, “And I get this feeling whenever I feel good / It’ll be the last time / But I feel something when I see you now / I feel something when I see you.” Phoebe creates a parallel between ICU, the Intensive Care Unit where people go when they’re fatally injured, and “when I see you,” something that makes her finally feel alive. The song is more of an upbeat indie song much like “Kyoto,” but has a heavier beat that may represent the beating of her heart for this person. 

I think that the feeling of finding someone that makes you feel something after not feeling many good things for a while is beautiful. Aside from just relationships, friends that you meet could have this same affect on you, making your days a lot better and giving you plans to look forward to. I know that I personally related to the feelings Bridgers talked about in this song with the amazing friends I’ve found in the past couple of years. The lyrics are catchy and provide a hopeful outlook for Phoebe’s life aside from the otherwise sad track list of Punisher.

Track 10: “Graceland Too”

The tenth track on Punisher is the most unique out of all of the tracks, as it is a trio singing along to a folk-like instrumental. The rest of the album has mostly soft instrumentals with somber lyrics and at times indie-rock flavors. In this song, Phoebe talks about a woman who just got out of the psych ward and is left with the option to really do anything she wants with her life. She “picks a direction and turns up the music so thoughts don’t intrude” while really wondering where to go next with her life. Eventually, she just winds up doing drugs with her friends and reflecting on the past relationships she has been in, possibly implying that they were the reason for her admittance into the psych ward.

Out of all of the tracks on the album, this song is definitely my least favorite. I love Phoebe’s music because of its indie-rock vibes, but this track definitely parts from that typical taste in a way I don’t particularly prefer. Nonetheless, the meaning behind the song solidifies the sense of loss the artists feels the need to express and is beautifully written, but simply not my taste! Some of the best lyrics are, “No longer a danger to herself or others / She made up her mind and laced up her shoes / Yelled down the hall, but nobody answered / So she walked outside without an excuse,” where she describes the woman finally leaving the psych ward. 

Track 11: “I Know The End”

The final track of Punisher talks about the end of the world in respect of everything that was happening at the time the song was written. At its start, Phoebe paints a post-apocalyptic scene of talking on a dusty swing set and hiding in bunkers as tornado sirens sound. She expresses no fear in the face of the end of world, singing that she wouldn’t run from the tornado, but would instead drive down the highway while being basked in the ultraviolet rays from the broken ozone layer, passing signs of both capitalistic outlet malls and evangelical signs urging whoever saw them to turn to God. The artist calls out the irony that is present in society through her last experiences on Earth and blames it all for the world’s ultimate demise. The song concludes with Bridgers stating the content she would feel after the apocalypse, finding “a new place to be from / A haunted house with a picket fence / To float around and ghost my friends.”

Overall, I love this song. The feelings of complete “meh, okay” in the face of the apocalypse is really entertaining. I appreciate the many ways in which she called out society and its hypocrisy, especially since it was in such an adrenaline-filled way. Having chaotic and loud rock vocals and instrumental at the conclusion of the album contrasted nicely with the first haunting track of “DVD Menu” and ended the entire album on a high note! 

Concluding Thoughts

Punisher is undoubtedly one of my favorite albums that I listen to. I find a lot of meaning in artists that can play around with lyrics, tell stories, and really have fun with writing. A lot of artists stick to chord progressions filled with three notes, a repetitive refrain, and cheesy lyrics. Phoebe stepped outside of that stereotypical box with Punisher and solidified her place in the indie rock community with an official Grammy-nominee. I recommend this album to anyone who loves rock indie music that appeals to the moments where you’re questioning everything, crying into your pillow, or driving down the highway with your windows down just racing to catch sunset. 

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