Anxious Hopes and Easy Listening in Phoebe Bridger’s ‘Punisher’

The first iPod I ever bought had a genre on it called ‘Easy Listening’. I have never had a clear idea of what it means for music to be easy to listen to, or for that matter difficult. But, in a murky and confused sense, I’m sure my iPod, lost and forgotten, would class Phoebe Bridgers’ latest and sophomore album Punisher as an easy listen.

Phoebe Bridgers is a singer/songwriter playing out of Southern California. Her music is somewhere between indie and emo. She tweets one liners about Bob Dylan and her near-namesake Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Her first album, Stranger in the Alps is a patchy but at points exquisite record about the trials of love and the confusions of intimacy. 

Punisher, by slight contrast, is tenderly wrought and rather serious. Unlike her debut – met with an encouraging but not enthralled reception – Punisher has been breathlessly reviewed by every publication from Pitchfork to Vogue to Variety. For some it is a ‘soundtrack to solitude’. Others hail the ‘big-tent tapestries of feeling’ it evokes. Bridgers has gone from a talented name on the edge of the indie scene to a near-mainstream staple. And with good reason. Punisher is wonderful and timely. Bridgers can write, and sing, and tell sad stories about the way we’ve come to live. 

Take the song Chinese Satellite for example. The singer looks up into the night sky and misses the numinous tug but she forces herself to wish upon the title object, a lodestar of godless geopolitics. Or the title song Punisher, an elegy to Elliot Smith and the ‘dianetics and stucco’ of Los Angeles, her hometown. Or the final track, I Know the End, which depicts roadside Americana in a dystopian veneer. In this sense, as in many, Punisher is a considerable step forward for Bridgers. Unlike her debut, which stuttered at points, Punisher is effortlessly fluid, as easy on the ears as Joni Mitchell. Bridgers has a quite remarkable voice – mellifluous and impassioned in equal measure. The instrumentations are unobtrusive and sensitively recorded. Sure – Bridgers doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but neither does she intend to. The songs, with occasional left hooks and unexpected lyrical twists, speak for themselves, without any experimental gloss.

To speak more deeply, however, Phoebe Bridgers is very much a singer for our times. In amidst spiraling death counts and police injustices it is not enough to write sad songs, but Phoebe Bridgers – on Punisher – well exceeds what we might expect from an artist with their roots in indie or emo. People need something more than tunes – we want music that speaks to our confusion and collective grief and I suspect that Punisher provides that. The swirling chorus of the final track repeats – a joyful refrain – that ‘the end is here’. We’ve heard this prophecy before but when faced with seemingly unavoidable climate collapse and a real-life plague it sure does feel that this time the Cassandras might be on to something. But Punisher isn’t a dirge, and we come out of it with a sense of empowerment, or even warmth. Phoebe has put into music the strange and overwhelming anxieties of her generation – the loneliness and the regret, the dystopias and nostalgia, the cynicism about organized religion and the national paranoias of those who look into the sky and see descending aliens and government drones. 

It is probably a coincidence that Punisher was released a day before Rough and Rowdy Ways, Bob Dylan’s first new release since 2012. In a Guardian interview Bridgers confessed that at the age of 12 she resolved to emulate Dylan’s lyrical canonicity. And there is a stark correspondence between Bridgers’ attempts to unravel the ‘vast, moth-eaten, musical brocade’ of modern life, and Dylan’s cryptic melancholia. But is there any point in trying to get to the bottom of an album like Punisher? It wasn’t written to challenge or to allude but rather as a sorrowful remedy for our peculiar and modern sicknesses. Until recently, at least, we could travel to our heart’s content but didn’t have a place called home, with all the technology in the world but nothing fixed to believe in. This is what music of a serious kind is for – to reveal the hidden but insidious pains of our breaking world, as beautifully as possible. Punisher is a memorable and effective album, as tender as it is unnerving. Easy listening it may be, but when so much else is wearisome, who wants difficult?