Phoebe Bridgers, "Punisher" (Dead Oceans)
Not the first lost soul to drive to Memphis, Bridgers is the first person to write a song about this road trip ("Graceland Too") and its mix of feelings, a kind of tattered, post-traumatic triumph that gradually blooms into a panoramic hope. Like the other nine songs on "Punisher," it is a showcase of Bridgers' strength as a songwriter: weaving tiny, specific, time-stamped details (chemtrails, Saltines, serotonin) into durable big-tent tapestries of feeling.
Bridgers' lyrical talent was evident on her 2017 debut, "Stranger in the Alps," which had a few perfect songs but as a whole sometimes felt muted, languid and downcast. "Punisher," though, moves along fluidly with its eyes to the vast sky. The atmosphere sets the scene for Bridgers' evocative, fractured storytelling.
The 25-year-old L.A. singer-songwriter's most frequently cited musical hero is another bard of Big Nothing, Elliott Smith. She shares with him a penchant for multitracking her murmured vocals; Bridgers' voice can be both deadpan and yearning at the same time.
Bridgers has a side project, Better Oblivion Community Center, with Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst, who contributes backing vocals here; on her debut, she covered Sun Kil Moon frontman Mark Kozelek's violent, haunting dirge "You Missed My Heart."
That she identifies so closely with these perspectives gives her music an androgynous, everydude charm. But it also allows her to subtly articulate some nuances of female subjugation that her musical forefathers never quite had access to. Such is the piercing power of "Moon Song," a highlight not just of "Punisher" but of Bridgers' output so far.
"Punisher" often feels like it's taking place on that hazy edge between dreaming and wakefulness, where words stick on the tips of tongues and everyday notions (Halloween, pay phones, stucco) seem suddenly surreal. Maybe that is why it makes a particular kind of sense in this moment, when we're all immobilized by existential dread and only able to travel in our dreams.
Lindsay Zoladz, New York Times
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