If there’s a better pure songwriter than Phoebe Bridgers at this moment, I don’t know who it is. Punisher, Bridger’s sophomore release under her own name, comes after some productive moonlighting with pals in the groups boygenius and Better Oblivion Community Center. Her creative voice was strong enough in those side endeavors that the new album feels less like a return than a continuation, part of the ongoing dialogue Bridgers has been having for the past few years (or longer). The intricacies with which she approaches her craft — the tender melodies, the specificity of the lyrics, the poignant openness of the emotions — heighten the sense that she’s engaged in one of those magical all-night conversations that makes it feel like time isn’t passing, until the light of dawn starts peeking through the window pane.
When songs are this intimate, it’s tempting to call them confessional. But that’s not the right characterization for Punisher. For one thing, any sins recounted belong to others. Instead, Bridgers positions herself as a beloved confidante, the kind of person who shares so deeply of herself that it’s like therapy for anyone in her circle, helping every last person who listens come to a better understanding of their own inherent, misunderstood being. “I’ve been running around in circles/ Pretending to be myself/ Why would somebody do this on purpose/ When they could do something else?,” Bridgers sings on the elegantly shifting “Chinese Satellite,” a sentiment that nestles nicely against “Baby, it’s Halloween/ And we can be anything” on the lean, lovely “Halloween.” She totality and consistency of her expression makes it feel like there’s a whole person resides in the album’s notes, whispering sparkling hidden truths.
Bridgers crafts her material with a spareness and restraint that accentuate her poetic and engrossing lyrics. But there are also sonic complexities that give the album valuable texture, making it more than a procession of tuneful treatises delivered from a coffeehouse stool. “Kyoto” builds and builds, with jabbing drums and a wash of horns. “Graceland Too,” which imagines a road trip to Elvis Presley’s vaunted home, includes some string plucking suitable for a bare-planked front porch, and “I Know the End” is a mass of swelling drama that crescendos in an everything-we’ve-got burst of musical noise. The musical inventiveness of Bridgers consistently enhances her bright, insightful words.
For this new album release, Bridgers chose a skeleton costume as her uniform. She couldn’t make a more fitting sartorial choice given that she spends the entirety of Punisher revealing her innermost self. That sharing, couple with a fierce intelligence and astounding imagination, makes for an album that’s precious as a secret.