Best of 2020: 15. Phoebe Bridgers ‘Punisher’

It’s possible I’ve overplayed it. It might be the numerous, useless vinyl pressings I tried or the not especially great sounding CD copy I resorted to after abandoning the turntable. It might just be a little too much during these incredibly bleak times. Whatever the reason, ‘Punisher’ has slipped down my list somewhat in the last month or two. When I first heard ‘Kyoto’, I found it hard to imagine the album not being in my top 5 come the end of the year. I know, who thinks like that? Well, me. And possibly you, given you’re reading an in-depth countdown of the albums of 2020 according to one, not especially punctual, bloke and his natty but underused blog. It is a blistering song and one of the finest of this year, from the swift interjection of the drums and jagged guitar over the noodly background through to its standing-strong-in-the-face-of-a-gale start to the chorus. The long horn section, the slow bits as it descends back to the verses and the gradual additional layers as it progresses all make for a song that can be played at least a dozen times in a row without even vaguely grating.

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‘Garden Song’ is a track which makes plenty of writers get the ‘ethereal’ twitch. It is one of the great cliches of music writing and vastly overused, meaning that most of us run for the hills whenever it bubbles up from our subconscious, like ‘oeuvre’ and pissing ‘sophomore’. But I think that word probably does belong with ‘Garden Song’, given its constantly bubbling-under verses and its sort-of chorus. It’s the kind of song you need to be inside, without a sense of what is coming from the left and right speaker or headphone. When it swirls around you, it is meditative and remarkably personal.

The title track fits in with the largely sparse tone of the album despite feeling rather slight, while ‘Halloween’ continues in that fashion but possesses a nagging chorus. Its opening lyric “I hate living by the hospital, the sirens go all night” got rather mangled by the year’s events and I can’t hear it without thinking about a certain tweet I vividly recall from MSNBC broadcaster Katy Tur – who wrote an incredible account of Trump’s rise to power, ‘Unbelievable’ – describing New York’s horrific early days with the virus when she posted “The sirens seem worse than usual tonight.” It was distressingly simple, hugely emotive and a pithy encapsulation of where so many places were, had been or would be again. I know that’s not the song’s fault, but it’s forever attached in my mind.

The story in ‘Moon Song’ typifies the observational honesty of Bridgers’ writing, an aspect which aligns neatly with the media narrative around literary fiction of late. It takes a magnificent swipe at Eric Clapton and references a potentially entertaining row about John Lennon. ‘Savior Complex’ has a precise combination of strings and vocals that is arguably the most beautiful thing on ‘Punisher’, while the fever dream fairground shuffle that starts ‘I See You’ is a very special hook indeed. The knowingly epic conclusion of ‘I Know The End’ rubs me up the wrong way though.

Much of what I loved about her marvellous debut ‘Stranger In The Alps’ is present here, although the songwriting is clearly a step up and a more cohesive soundscape holds this record together more effectively than her debut. In some respects, ‘Punisher’ suffers slightly by meeting the very high expectations I had for it. It hasn’t exceeded them but it’s still a special record and one I’m sure will be well served by some distance from 2020.

Buy ‘Punisher’ from Banquet

BEST OF 2017: 9. Phoebe Bridgers ‘Stranger In The Alps’

Music’s capacity to prompt a response deep within you, involuntary and initiated by little more than a particular sequence of notes or well chosen chords, remains one of life’s most addictive elements. Something about the first twenty seconds of ‘Smoke Signals’, which opens this glorious album, has the capacity to send up the flare for imminent tears. I’m not saying it makes me cry every time I put it on, but that little flicker that something has just shifted inside you is dependably there with each play. It’s quite a skill but also quite an imperceptible thing to define. That whole track is quite special, atmospheric, intense and featuring the lyric: “We’ll watch TV while the lights on the street / Put all the stars to death / It’s been on my mind since Bowie died / Just checking out to hide from life.” It works for me and the rest of the record doesn’t disappoint.

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The break-up narrative of ‘Motion Sickness’ is brilliantly deployed, “You said when you met me you were bored / And you were in a band when I was born,” while the aching failure to reevaluate after the loss in ‘Funeral’ is presented unpolished for our attention. The moment during the final third of ‘Scott Street’, already no slouch, when an additional, higher pitched backing vocal enters and something like a bike bell is rung is deliriously beautiful. I quite sincerely get a little excited in anticipation of its arrival during every listen. The alchemical touch to which I alluded earlier plays its part at several points on ‘Stranger In The Alps’, finessing some already captivating songwriting.

Chelsea’ has a dextrously delayed drumbeat while ‘Georgia’ offers a more conventional sound, representing some of Bridgers’ earliest writing and likely to appeal immediately to fans of First Aid Kit. Both feature the typically magnificent vocal performances that are so consistently across this whole album. ‘Would You Rather’ features Conor Oberst doing what Conor Oberst does atop an ornate arrangement that pursues different textures to its near neighbours. The album concludes with a glorious reading of ‘You Missed My Heart’, one of the few Mark Kozelek tracks I haven’t been able to let go of since purging his increasingly frustrating and wilfully unpleasant presence from my record collection. The highlight of his 2013 collaboration with Jimmy LaValle, it appears here without its bleepy, electronic distance, instead marshalled by warm piano and delicate ambient textures. It’s the superior version of this captivating track, but clearly not written in or for her voice, which actually seems a shame after the pulsating honesty of tracks like ‘Funeral’ and ‘Smoke Signals’. Much of the early press for this album talked about artists who are backing her, but Bridgers has done more than enough on this debut to stand alone without need for reinforcements, be they in press releases, performance or even songwriting. It’s genuinely exciting to think where she might go next.