Punisher (album)

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Punisher
Phoebe Bridgers Punisher (2020).png
Studio album by
ReleasedJune 17, 2020
Recorded2018–2019
StudioSound City (Van Nuys, California)
Genre
Length40:37
LabelDead Oceans
Producer
Phoebe Bridgers chronology
Better Oblivion Community Center
(2018)
Punisher
(2020)
Copycat Killer
(2020)
Singles from Punisher
  1. "Garden Song"
    Released: February 26, 2020
  2. "Kyoto"
    Released: April 9, 2020
  3. "ICU"
    Released: May 19, 2020
  4. "I Know the End"
    Released: July 29, 2020[1]
  5. "Savior Complex"
    Released: December 7, 2020[2]

Punisher is the second studio album by American singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers, released on June 17, 2020 by Dead Oceans.[3] Bridgers first established herself with her 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps, a widely acclaimed indie rock effort. In the years preceding her second album, the California native formed the bands boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center. On Punisher, Bridgers' songwriting is somber and sardonic; deeply personal in nature, it explores topics like dissociation and fragmenting relationships.

Punisher was recorded over a year and a half at Sound City Studios in Los Angeles and reunited Bridgers with producers Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, who also engineered Alps. Its recording process was collaborative with its liner notes crediting over two dozen prominent musicians, including Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Christian Lee Hutson, Jim Keltner, Blake Mills, and Conor Oberst. Punisher was supported by five singles "Garden Song", "Kyoto", "ICU", "I Know the End" and "Savior Complex". Upon its release, the album attracted acclaim from music critics, who celebrated its open lyricism.

Background[edit]

American singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers rose to prominence in the late 2010s with a blend of subdued and specific songwriting that quickly garnered her a significant level of fame among indie rock fans.[4] Bridgers grew up writing songs and playing guitar; a Los Angeles native, she attended its County High School for the Arts, where she studied vocal jazz. In 2017, she released her debut album, Stranger in the Alps, on Indiana-based indie label Dead Oceans. The LP received widespread acclaim from critics and peers; guitarist John Mayer heralded it as "the arrival of a giant".[5]

She rapidly became an in-demand performer, guesting on songs with the National, Fiona Apple, the 1975, and Jackson Browne.[6] She formed the all-female supergroup boygenius with musicians Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, which released an EP in 2018.[7] She also began collaborating with Conor Oberst, forming the band Better Oblivion Community Center; it released its debut, self-titled album in 2019.[8] She also began closely working with singer-songwriter Christian Lee Hutson, going on to produce Hutson's debut album, Beginners, released in 2020.[4] Ryan Leas, writing for Stereogum, observed that Bridgers' growing body of work—particularly before releasing a second album—was already "diverse and complex".[9]

Writing and recording[edit]

Bridgers performing in 2018

Bridgers first began developing songs for Punisher while on the road touring; many songs predate the release of Alps.[8] Songs such as "ICU" were written at soundchecks.[9] Bridgers considered her efforts on Punisher nothing revolutionary but rather a breakthrough in combining her disparate influences: "how to reference a hundred things at once that I've always loved," she said.[10] She continued to work with drummer Marshall Vore as her closest collaborator, often approaching him first with song ideas.[10] Lyrically, she aimed to imbue each song with an interesting angle, even when it had little to do with her.[10] She reworked lyrics frequently,[5] writing placeholder verses to amuse herself that she ultimately enjoyed too much to replace.[10]

Punisher was recorded at Sound City, a celebrated studio in the L.A. neighborhood of Van Nuys.[8] Bridgers considered its illustrious past "not a big selling point" for her[11] but conceded it to be a "magical place". Punisher hosts a wide array of guest performers, including all of Bridgers' collaborators on her side projects.[10] She noted that many contributors to the album appear because they were simply around Sound City at the time,[9] including veteran percussionist Jim Keltner—known for his work with Bob Dylan and John Lennon—who performs on two tracks, and musician Blake Mills, who adds to three songs on Punisher.[8]

The album was worked on sporadically between mid-2018 and late 2019.[4] To produce Punisher, she recruited Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, two previous collaborators on Alps.[4] The album came together in a sequential order; many songs were recorded in the order they appear on the album.[9] For the title track, Gruska utilized samples of birds, a Mellotron and a back-masked clip of Bridgers' voice that fade in and out at various points in the song—or as Bridgers puts it, "riding the faders". The technique is one she learned from engineer Joseph Lorge.[8] Bridgers also continued her practice of double tracking all of her vocals as a tribute to her favorite artist, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith.[10] Sonically, the album mixes Bridgers' "arpeggiated guitar work" with "looping synths and eerily groaning strings".[7]

Themes and composition[edit]

The repeating refrain from the conclusion of "I Know the End."

Punisher has been described as an indie rock,[12] emo-folk,[13] and indie folk album.[14] Lyrically, it tackles themes of "missed connections, the tension between the inner and outer self, [and] the lonely ache of watching things end."[10] In a press release, Bridgers used the words "crying" and the feeling of numbness to describe its contents.[9] Quinn Moreland of Pitchfork interpreted the LP as born from "languid spells of depression, desire, and self-destruction".[6] The album's liner notes dedicate it to Max, a black pug Bridgers had for sixteen years until his passing in 2019. His death had a profound effect on Bridgers, who noted that "going home to an empty apartment was pretty fucked up" and that perhaps it worked its way into the darkness present on Punisher.[6] She also credited the author Joan Didion as an inspiration on Punisher[5] and referenced the podcast My Favorite Murder in two separate articles highlighting her influences on Punisher: "I think it probably snuck in (to the album)," she remarked.[6][8]

Bridgers' songwriting ranges from sardonic to sharply honest;[9] Lindsay Zoladz of The New York Times observed that Bridgers "weav[es] tiny, specific, time-stamped details (chemtrails, Saltines, serotonin) into durable big-tent tapestries of feeling."[7] Altogether, the album chronicles Bridgers' personal journey towards therapy and being able to better enjoy life. While Alps is rooted in trauma, Punisher identifies tools she used to deal with that trauma.[9]

Songs[edit]

"Kyoto" recounts Bridgers' experience with dissociation during a trip to the Japanese city

The instrumental "DVD Menu" opens the LP and segues into "Garden Song", the album's lead single. "Garden Song" centers on self-manifestation and how one's actions can push things into motion. Bridgers considered it a "sequel" of sorts to "Smoke Signals", the lead single from Alps, in that they are both love songs.[9] Bridgers described "Kyoto" as based around the concept of dissociation—confusion between surroundings and identity, or as Bridgers put it, "living outside your body when cool shit is happening". The song originated from a trip to Japan in which she felt apathetic and unmotivated to explore, and its lyrics are based on her complex relationship with her father. "Kyoto" has been described as one of the catchier songs on the album; its upbeat tone was requested by Berg, who felt she had written too many slow ballads.[9] The title track derives its name from an in-joke among musicians: a punisher is an overzealous fan,[7] one who "lingers at the merch table a little too long".[9][5] The song examines her longtime love for Elliott Smith, with Bridgers imagining a conversation between them in which she would be the punisher, given her intense devotion to his music.[5] Bridgers thought she might self-title the album but settled on Punisher because it seemed cool.[9]

"Halloween" centers on a decaying relationship that is being clung to until the holidays.[6] The song's development took over a year and a half, with Bridgers struggling with a verse. Conor Oberst, who sings in the song's second half, suggested she write about a conversation topic she brought up frequently: murders that have taken place at L.A.'s Dodger Stadium.[9] "Moon Song" romanticizes a lover who hates themselves. Many commentators singled out the couplet "We hate 'Tears in Heaven'/But it's sad his baby died" as particularly memorable: these lines refer to guitarist Eric Clapton's account of his son's tragic death.[9] She wrote the melody to follow-up song "Savior Complex" in a dream,[4] a folk rock and baroque indie pop waltz,[15][16] which carries on the subject of a difficult relationship.[9] "ICU"—as in intensive care unit—has been called a "devastating breakup song"[4] and recounts Bridgers' breakup with collaborator Marshall Vore, who remains her touring drummer and confidant.[9] It contains the lyric "I hate your mom/I hate it when she opens her mouth," which stemmed from an altercation Bridgers had with an ex's mother, who argued with her about President Donald Trump while grocery shopping.[4] Bridgers briefly re-titled the song "I See You" upon its debut, so as to remain sensitive to those suffering from the coronavirus, but the name was reverted upon the album's release and remains "ICU" on physical editions.

Bridgers penned "Graceland Too"—a country-tinged, lyrical folk, and banjo-led ballad that sonically references her love of bluegrass[15][17][8]—on a trip to Nashville to visit her bandmates in boygenius, who later added vocals to the song.[4] The title references a shrine and tourist attraction to Elvis Presley, south of the original Graceland in the U.S. state of Mississippi. To Bridgers, the locale is used as a vehicle and a "cheap" way to express her feelings.[9] "I Know the End" which starts as a folk song,[16] went through several different iterations and was both the first song to be developed and the last to see completion. Bridgers and Vore first developed the song as a depiction of tour-related depression. Its third verse depicts a coastal drive to visit her relatives in northern California where she saw a SpaceX launch that resembled a spaceship.[9] Bridgers sings of passing a highway billboard that reads "the end is near". A chorus of guest vocalists join in and collide in a cacophony of screams.[7]

Release[edit]

Punisher was highly anticipated.[13] The album's first single, "Garden Song", was released on February 26, 2020,[18] with its follow-up, "Kyoto", seeing release on April 9 of that year.[19] The album's third single "ICU" (retitled "I See You") was released on May 19, 2020.[20]

The LP was scheduled for release on June 19[19]—or Juneteenth, the official end of slavery in the U.S.—but Bridgers opted to release it early on digital services, with an announcement encouraging fans to donate to organizations seeking racial justice.[3][11] It debuted during a worldwide quarantine related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and amid a period of civil unrest in the U.S., with citizens protesting the murder of George Floyd and others. "I'm not [delaying] the record until things go back to 'normal' because I don't think they should," Bridgers wrote on Twitter.[10] Touring plans for Punisher were postponed due to the aforementioned pandemic. Bridgers was scheduled to open for The 1975 on a stadium tour.[8] Bridgers announced a headlining tour set for September and October 2021.[21]

Critical reception[edit]

Professional ratings
Aggregate scores
SourceRating
AnyDecentMusic?8.4/10[23]
Metacritic90/100[24]
Review scores
SourceRating
AllMusic[25]
The A.V. ClubA-[17]
Consequence of SoundA-[26]
The Daily Telegraph[27]
The Independent[28]
The Line of Best Fit8/10[29]
NME[30]
Pitchfork8.7/10[31]
Slant Magazine[32]
Rolling Stone[13]

Punisher received widespread acclaim from music critics. The album has a score of 90 out of 100 on Metacritic, indicating "universal acclaim", based on 31 reviews.[33]

Pitchfork's Sam Sodomsky designated it with the publication's "Best New Music" tag, calling it "marvelous, [...] candid, multi-dimensional, slyly psychedelic, and full of heart. Her music has become a world unto itself."[31] Jonathan Bernstein from Rolling Stone called the work visionary, "eleven expertly rendered, largely downcast songs about broken faith, desperate, occasionally self-destructive love, and tenuous recovery."[13] NME gave the album a perfect score, writing, "The LA songwriter's ability to paint this lingering feeling of dread so vividly is perhaps the biggest factor in her rapid rise to cultish indie household name; just look at the state of the world right now."[34]

David Sackllah of Consequence of Sound gave the album an A-, writing "Punisher beams with a restless energy and twisted dream logic that erupts into striking moments of clarity in a way reminiscent of the National's Boxer.[26] Fred Thomas at AllMusic opined that the LP "reaches new depths [...] It's an album of shockingly self-aware explorations of dark feelings and Bridgers is more willing than ever before to throw herself headlong into the darkness."[17] Alexandra Pollard from The Independent felt that Bridgers "sharpened and broadened her songwriting" on the album;[28] New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz designated it as a "critic's pick".[7]

Robert Christgau was less enthusiastic, highlighting the songs "ICU" and "Graceland Too" while summarizing the album's merits with the following statement: "If articulated depression is what you crave, does she have lyrical and musical detail for you—philosophical solace or melodic relief, no".[35]

Accolades[edit]

Year-end lists[edit]

Critics' rankings for Punisher
Publication Accolade Rank Ref.
34th Street Magazine Street's Favorite Albums of 2020 N/A
The A.V. Club The 20 Best Albums of 2020
2
AllMusic AllMusic Best of 2020 N/A
Billboard The 50 Best Albums of 2020
15
Clash Clash Albums Of The Year 2020
3
Consequence of Sound The 50 Best Albums of 2020
3
Crack The Top 50 Albums of 2020
10
Double J The 50 Best Albums of 2020
15
Esquire The 50 Best Albums of 2020
1
Exclaim! Exclaim!'s 50 Best Albums of 2020
3
The Fader The 50 Best Albums of 2020
5
Gaffa 2020's 20 Best Foreign Albums
8
Gigwise The Gigwise 51 Best Albums of 2020
15
Glamour The 30 Best Albums of 2020 N/A
The Guardian The 50 Best Albums of 2020
16
Alim Kheraj's Albums of 2020 N/A
Elle Hunt's Albums of 2020 N/A
Eve Barlow's Albums of 2020 N/A
Gwilym Mumford's Albums of 2020 N/A
Kate Solomon's Albums of 2020 N/A
Kathryn Bromwich's Albums of 2020 N/A
Katie Hawthorne's Albums of 2020 N/A
GQ (UK) Best Albums of 2020
2
Insider The 20 Best Albums of 2020, Ranked
4
The Line of Best Fit The Best Albums of 2020 Ranked
4
The New Yorker The Best Music of 2020
10
The New York Times Lindsay Zoladz's Best Albums of 2020
2
NME The 50 Best Albums of 2020
5
Noisey The 100 Best Albums of 2020
22
NPR The 50 Best Albums of 2020
4
Nylon Nylon's Top Albums Of 2020 N/A
Our Culture Mag The 50 Best Albums of 2020
2
Paste The 50 Best Albums of 2020
14
Pitchfork The 50 Best Albums of 2020
4
PopBuzz The 20 Best Albums of 2020
7
PopSugar The 50 Best Albums of 2020
14
Rolling Stone The 50 Best Albums of 2020
10
Shondaland The Best Music of 2020 N/A
The Skinny Top 10 Albums of 2020
2
Slate The Best Albums of 2020
1
Spin The 30 Best Albums of 2020
7
Stereogum The Top 50 Best Albums of 2020
28
Time Out The 15 Best Albums of 2020 N/A
Under the Radar Top 100 Albums of 2020
1
Uproxx The Best Albums of 2020
15
Us Weekly 10 Best Albums of 2020
7
USA Today The 10 Best Albums of 2020
8
Variety Chris Willman's Albums of 2020
7
Jem Aswad's Albums of 2020
6
Vulture The Best Albums of 2020
5
Wonderland The Best Albums of 2020 (Part 2) N/A

Awards[edit]

Awards and nominations for Punisher
Year Ceremony Category Nominated Work Result Ref.
2021 Grammy Awards Best Alternative Music Album Punisher Nominated [81]
Best Rock Performance "Kyoto" Nominated
Best Rock Song Nominated

Track listing[edit]

No.TitleWriter(s)Length
1."DVD Menu"Phoebe Bridgers1:09
2."Garden Song"
3:39
3."Kyoto"
3:04
4."Punisher"
3:09
5."Halloween"
  • Bridgers
  • Hutson
  • Oberst
4:31
6."Chinese Satellite"
  • Bridgers
  • Oberst
  • Vore
3:37
7."Moon Song"Bridgers4:37
8."Savior Complex"
  • Bridgers
  • Hutson
  • Oberst
4:01
9."ICU"
  • Bridgers
  • Vore
  • Nicholas White
3:10
10."Graceland Too"
  • Bridgers
  • Hutson
3:56
11."I Know the End"
  • Bridgers
  • Hutson
  • Oberst
  • Vore
5:44
Total length:40:37

Personnel[edit]

Credits are adapted from the album's liner notes.

Musicians

Charts[edit]

References[edit]

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