Best albums of 2020: #3 Phoebe Bridgers “Punisher”

In 2017, the debut album by a young singer/songwriter I had never heard of just eked itself into the final position on the list of my top ten albums for the year. Yes, that singer/songwriter was named Phoebe Bridgers and yes, I fully admit that “Stranger in the alps” might place higher on said list if I had to do a recount someday.

Since that year, the young Ms. Bridgers has become much more well known and with good reason. She’s talented, intelligent, and because of this, others want to work with her. She’s collaborated with the who’s who of the indie rock world, including a one-off self-titled EP in a supergroup (of sorts) called boygenius, that she concocted with Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. She also put together a group with Mr. Indie rock 2000 himself, Conor Oberst, called Better Oblivion Community Center, and released an eponymously named long player, which found itself at number one on my Best Albums list for last year.

So to say her sophomore album was eagerly anticipated (and not just by me) is an understatement to say the least. Nevertheless, “Punisher” is that rare animal that doesn’t underwhelm under the heft of expectations heaped upon it, rather it leaps out from under the huge shadow manufactured by its predecessor and surpasses it. Recorded in multiple sessions over a year and a half period and with the help of a number of her, by now, many musician friends, the album’s eleven tracks appear exactly in the same order as they were completed, which just once more proves the honesty in her approach.

Indeed, “Punisher” is just as open and personal as “Stranger in the Alps”. Listening to her words, you get the feeling that you know Phoebe Bridgers. There’s no hiding or subterfuge here. It’s quiet but it’s also loud and full, our storyteller letting everything that influences her to find its way into the mix. Yet her voice never gets lost. In fact, there’s no escaping her soft touch, her frail yet confident delivery, her learning and learned experiences informing everything. It makes you wonder at the expansiveness of what her 10th or 12th album will sound like a couple of decades from now.

The whole of “Punisher” is definitely worth your time if you have it but if not, at least give your attention to my three picks for you as preview.

“Garden song“: Track two is the first proper song on “Punisher” and the first taste of it that we received back in February. It is fingers brushing and dancing over acoustic strings, distorted and blurred by haunting synth washes and just the hint of a drum beat. Bridgers sings frailty and strength, emboldened by rumbling shadow vocals provided by her tour manager, Jeroen Vrijhoef. It’s a song that riffs on memories but in typical Bridgers fashion, it is not quite as simple as that. It is memories looking forward to the future looking back at the memories. “Someday, I’m gonna live in your house up on the hill.” And that house will have a garden that will remind her of her unhappy family home, her hometown, jumping fences as a teen, her favourite movie, romantic encounters, and how they all add up to her hoping she’ll grow up right.

“Chinese satellite”: “Took a tour to see the stars but they weren’t out tonight, so I wished hard on a Chinese Satellite.” This chorus line of track six reminds me of the line from the iconic Billy Bragg track, “A new england”, where he also wishes on a satellite instead of a falling star and wonders if it is wrong to wish upon “space hardware”. And if I continue to draw comparisons, both songs are about loss, but Billy seems to be a bit more upbeat about it and Phoebe, though she hasn’t lost her sense of humour, is heartbreakingly dark. Finally, Bridgers soups up her solo guitar work with a load of effects for a fuller and oddly, more claustrophobic and haunting sound. It’s hard to tell whether the loss in her case was death but it certainly feels that way.

“Kyoto”: This last track, the second single to be released from the album, is definitely my favourite and it’s likely because it’s also the most upbeat. It sets a completely different tone, almost rocking with a bashing beat and horn flourishes, underneath Bridgers’ still maudlin and sad and pained vocals. “Kyoto” feels a little like “Lost in translation” to me. It’s like a world apart, not real life, a vacation, like being pulled outside one’s consciousness and looking down at oneself and the recognition not being there. “Day off in Kyoto. I got bored at the temple, looked around at the 7-11.” Lyrically and at its most platonic level, the song feels like jotted notes to try to remember the trip, but the music feels like a journey, a fish out of water for Bridgers and shows that she’s got this in her. So exciting to hear what comes next.

Check back next Thursday for album #2. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. The Strokes “The new abnormal”
9. Venus Furs “Venus Furs”
8. Bright Eyes “Down in the weeds, where the world once was”
7. The Beths “Jump rope gazers”
6. The Rentals “Q36”
5. Secret Machines “Awake in the brain chamber”
4. No Joy “Motherhood”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.


Vinyl love: Phoebe Bridgers “Punisher”

(Vinyl Love is a series of posts that quite simply lists, describes, and displays the pieces in my growing vinyl collection. You can bet that each record was given a spin during the drafting of each corresponding post.)

Artist: Phoebe Bridgers
Album Title: Punisher
Year released: 2020
Details: Limited edition, red and swirly vinyl, gatefold sleeve, included lyric book

The skinny: I pre-ordered this limited edition, red and swirly pressing of Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore solo record, “Punisher”, as soon as I heard tell of it, right off her website. No second guessing. I loved her first album and both of the collaborative projects (boygenius, Better Oblivion Community Center) of which she has since been a part. The wait for the record was interminable. I’m not talking about the release date but the amount of time it took to get from California to here. I was worried that with the sitting and changing hands through the multiple stages through two postal systems, it might have gotten damaged along the way. But not so. And it was definitely worth the wait. The packaging is immaculate and the artwork and lyric booklet is lovingly rendered. And well, the music itself? Let’s just say that you can believe the hype.

(Update December 2020: “Punisher” has continued to rise in my esteem and has found itself at number three on my end of year favourite albums list.)

Standout track: “Kyoto”


Playlist: New tunes from 2020, part two

Back at the end of April, I posted the first part of this series, sharing with you all a playlist containing twenty-five tracks that I enjoyed during the first quarter of 2020. At that time, we were just five weeks or so into COVID-19 lockdown and had no idea what was going to happen or how long things were going to go on the way they were going. And well, we’re now nearing the end of July and we still don’t really have the answer to any of these questions. Restrictions have been relaxed in different parts of the world and we’ve had second outbreaks happen in others. We’ve been very tentative here in Canada. Slowly, slowly, slowly, we’ve seen some return to normalcy, albeit with some changes. Drive-in movie theatres appear to be making a comeback and leapfrogging from that, drive-in concerts. Masks are now prevalent and being made mandatory in all indoor public places. And of course, many of us are still working from home and really, seeing very little of other people outside of our own little bubbles.

Luckily for us, new music is still being released. Something to keep us occupied while we all stuck at home. I’ve (more than once) found myself wondering, though, if it, at some point, the music would stop coming. But no, at least not yet. Indeed, I would imagine that many of the tracks on this playlist were finished up during this crazy time and maybe even some of it recorded while in isolation. And when I get to posting the third playlist in this series, sometime in October, I feel like most of those songs will be influenced in some way by this new reality, whatever that will look like by then.

But before I get to much ahead of myself, let’s have a look at some of the highlights of this season’s playlist:

      • It all opens up with “Breathe”, the frenetic second track off Canadian indie popsters Born Ruffian‘s latest album, “Juice”
      • “The adults are talking” is a tune that I just can’t resist, the first in many years by The Strokes that has grabbed me right from the beginning and has yet to let go
      • One of my favourite Netflix series of late has been this British comedy, “Sex education”, and the soundtrack by Ezra Furman is just phenomenal and it finally saw a release this year, on which “Every feeling” is a standout track
      • I purchased I Break Horses‘s new album, “Warnings“, for my vinyl collection in May and it is quickly becoming one of my favourites of the year – just have a taste of “I’ll be the death of you” to see why
      • I saw and fell for Gateway Drugs when they opened for Swervedriver in 2015 and have been waiting for new material ever since, soooo… yes, “Wait (medication)” off this year’s “PSA” is very welcome and its production by Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner definitely doesn’t hurt
      • It’s been 30 years since Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember’s last solo album but the founding member of Spaceman 3 creates quite the groove on “Just imagine” and the rest of “All things being equal” is quite lovely as well
      • A lot is being made of Phoebe Bridgers‘ sophomore record “Punisher” by the critics and I cannot fault them at all – “Kyoto” is a fine example of her mature and intelligent songwriting

For those who don’t use Spotify or if the embedded playlist below doesn’t work for you, here is the entire playlist as I’ve created it:

1. “Breathe” Born Ruffians (from the album Juice)

2. “Pringle creek” Ellis (from the album Born again)

3. “Petty drone” Mystery Jets (from the album A billion heartbeats)

4. “Alexandra” Laura Marling (from the album Song for our daughter)

5. “The adults are talking” The Strokes (from the album The new abnormal)

6. “Every feeling” Ezra Furman (from the album Sex Education soundtrack)

7. “Decade” Harkin (from the album Harkin)

8. “Nites out” Other Lives (from the album For their love)

9. “Wake UP!” Hazel English (from the album Wake UP!)

10. “Anywayz” Austra (from the album HiRUDiN)

11. “Vegetable” Happyness (from the album Floatr)

12. “I’ll be the death of you” I Break Horses (from the album Warnings)

13. “Wait (medication)” Gateway Drugs (from the album PSA)

14. “Temple” Thao & The Get Down Stay Down (from the album Temple)

15. “Instant nightmare!” The Dears (from the album Lovers rock)

16. “Hollywood Park” The Airborne Toxic Event (from the album Hollywood Park)

17. “Is this a dream” Badly Drawn Boy (from the album Banana Skin Shoes)

18. “(Don’t break my) devotion” Jade Hairpins (from the album Harmony Avenue)

19. “Just imagine” Sonic Boom (from the album All things being equal)

20. “Cameo” Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever (from the album Sideways to New Italy)

21. “Red western sky” Muzz (from the album Muzz)

22. “Riding solo” Hinds (from the album The prettiest curse)

23. “Kyoto” Phoebe Bridgers (from the album Punisher)

24. “Real long gong” Rose City Band (from the album Summerlong)

25. “Hot heater” Pottery (from the album Welcome to Bobby’s Motel)

And just as I said back in April: Wherever you are in the world, I hope you are safe and continue to be well. Until next time, enjoy the tunes.

If you’re interested in checking out any of the other playlists I’ve created and shared on these pages, you can peruse them here.