The American Dream. So many have clung to it, allowing themselves to hope and dream of opportunity. That dream has been the basis for thousands of movies, shows and songs that have painted a picture of hardworking families and bright cities. In reality, as many have begun to see over the past number of years, the American Dream is not quite what it’s made out to be. On her latest record, Punisher, Phoebe Bridgers ruminates on something different, something extremely real. Here, Bridgers sets out, not to explore the American Dream, but to define the American Nightmare.
Punisher, the follow-up to Bridgers’ critically-lauded Stranger in The Alps, is obsessed with Americana, as she deep dives into every corner of both her country and her mind. Bridgers’ power comes in her lyrics, conjuring such vivid emotions through a metaphor or simple statement. Her image of America is a dark one, pulling the veil away and pointing out every flaw she can see around her, in an effort to capture the flaws within herself.
“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,” she sings on the record’s title track. “I hate living by the hospital // The sirens go all night // I used to joke that if they woke you up // Someone better be dying,” she sighs. This is a trend Bridgers adopts; mentioning some incredibly mundane place and allowing it to reveal something about herself. It’s very deliberate, as are all the choices made on the record. She knows what she’s doing, so in tune with the feeling that she wants to express, in tune with the place that so effectively captures it. The drugstore, the hospital. These places feel so human, so insignificant, and yet, they conjure such a specific feeling, such distinct emotion.
The album doesn’t stray very far in its production, mainly dancing between the strum of acoustic and electric guitars. Bridgers’ vocals float barely past a whisper, delicate and breathy. Every song feels similar, from the rumbling “Garden Song” to the barely there “Saviour Complex.” It all feels very close, almost homogeneous in its cohesion, each song bleeding into the next. However, this works for the album, creating this wonderful, almost claustrophobic atmosphere that starts as easy listening, but eventually morphs into discomfort. This cohesion, this sameness is also very deliberate, clearly affording Bridgers’ lyrics the chance to do much of the emotional lifting, sucking the listener into an acoustic feel, only to clobber them with sheer blunt force of each terribly specific and mundane thought that she has meticulously built with her words. That’s not to say the production doesn’t do some of the work; it’s just very scarce, and all the more effective because of this. The album closer and highlight, “I Know The End,” slowly builds from an acoustic ember until you’re engulfed in a forest fire of strings and drums, eventually collapsing until all that’s left is a few of Bridgers’ labored exhales. It’s incredible and awful and addicting at the same time.
Punisher lives up to its name. Every inch of this record is haunting and deeply uncomfortable. It’s unrelentingly and horrifyingly effecting. Every pluck, every word, every breath is so meticulously chosen, so immensely detailed. This album is a punishment, and god, what a truly wonderful punishment it is.
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