Phoebe Bridgers’ new album ‘Punisher’ is grand yet intimate — review
Phoebe Bridgers had planned to release her new album Punisher on Friday (6/19) via Dead Oceans, but it's out now. She says, "I’m not pushing the record until things go back to 'normal' because I don’t think they should. Here it is a little early. Abolish the police. Hope you like it." She also provides a link that prompts you to donate to one of seven charities before listening.
Perhaps not since Bon Iver a decade earlier have we seen an artist in the indie folk realm release an instant-classic debut album and then lend their talents to an endless amount of other musical projects, all while continuing to put off their own sophomore album. In the time since Stranger In The Alps, Phoebe Bridgers released as an EP with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus as boygenius, and an album with Conor Oberst as Better Oblivion Community Center. She leant her voice to projects by The 1975, Hayley Williams, Matt Berninger, Lord Huron, Perfume Genius, Mercury Rev, Big Red Machine (who, since he came up earlier, is Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and The National's Aaron Dessner), and a handful of other projects. And like Justin Vernon, fans eventually realized that Phoebe had put out a lot of material before her debut album too, much of it very good. But now, after all that, Phoebe has turned the spotlight back on herself and finally released her hugely anticipated sophomore album. It manages to sound bigger and louder than her debut and take her music in all kinds of new directions without ever losing the intimacy that made so many people fall in love with her music in the first place.
The old cliche of "you have your whole life to write your first album" is especially true in Phoebe's case -- if you listen to some of that more obscure early material, you'll hear that some of the Stranger in the Alps songs had been in her arsenal for years and workshopped over and over. So it may have taken Punisher a while to come out, but for this album Phoebe didn't have the luxury of taking a song like "Georgia," playing it live for at least five years, and releasing an early, alternate version of it before coming out with the stunning arrangement the song has on Stranger in the Alps. (Especially in the age of YouTube and Instagram, established artists can't really road-test new songs if they want to keep them under wraps.) At the same time, Phoebe has come a long way since Stranger in the Alps and the Phoebe Bridgers who made Punisher has a whole new batch of tricks up her sleeve that she didn't have three years ago. Conor Oberst also sang on Stranger in the Alps and the album had a few exciting names behind the scenes (Mike Mogis, Rob Moose, John Doe), but Phoebe is now a masterful, chameleonic collaborator, and that's represented all over Punisher, which features Conor singing on two songs, her boygenius bandmates Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus singing on two songs, and contributions from Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Nick Zinner, Blake Mills, Warpaint's Jenny Lee Lindberg, Bright Eyes' Nate Walcott, Christian Lee Hutson, Tomberlin, and more. (It also features the same mixing and production team as her debut -- Mike Mogis, Tony Berg, and Ethan Gruska -- and features some of the same backing musicians, including Marshall Vore and longtime collaborator Harrison Whitford.) And though it's still Phoebe's name on the marquee and her face on the album cover, Punisher truly feels like a much more communal album than its predecessor. You could still picture Phoebe performing most of these songs solo if she wanted to, but your brain never draws up images of one person and their acoustic guitar when you listen. You notice the many guest vocalists, you notice the intricate arrangements, and it all swells together wonderfully.
Songs like "Garden Song," "Halloween," and the title track are just as hushed as the most beloved songs on Stranger in the Alps, but instead of a strummy acoustic guitar, it's crackling atmosphere. On the other hand, songs like "Kyoto" and "I See You" go in a big, grand direction that Stranger in the Alps only hinted at, and they suit Phoebe's songwriting style just as well as the quiet songs. Nate Walcott's horns on "Kyoto" steal the show as much as Phoebe's own singing. Lyrically, the songs on Punisher capture that same energy Phoebe perfected when she first broke out with 2015's Killer EP -- conversational yet devastating.
What most separates Punisher from Stranger in the Alps is the way the guest vocalists become a significant aspect of the show, not just a cherry on top. Nowhere is this clearer than on the last two songs. Penultimate track "Graceland Too" features Julien and Lucy and it's like an even fuller realization of boygenius than the boygenius EP was. (It's also making us want another boygenius record.) The very best song on Punisher, though, is closing track "I Know The End." It's got guest vocals from boygenius and Conor, and Tomberlin, and basically the whole ensemble that plays on Punisher contributed something to this one. It sounds less like Stranger in the Alps and more like prime-era Broken Social Scene -- a big, triumphant song that makes you picture 12 musicians on stage at once, all feeding off of each other's energy, not just a solo artist alone in their room. It's the only song on Punisher like it, but it makes you wonder - is this where Phoebe might head next? Who knows, but if she does, we're in for a treat.
You can stream Punisher below, and check out the organizations that Phoebe is suggesting you donate to.