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There’s a set of lyrics in the middle of Phoebe Bridgers’s “Chinese Satellite” — the sixth track on her remarkable sophomore album Punisher — that breaks me wide open and makes me nearly sob every single time I hear it.
In the song, Bridgers mourns an unspecified friend who seems to have died. At one point, Bridgers and the friend see evangelical Christians protesting on a street corner. The friend shouts back at the protesters, and later, the two have a conversation about the situation, which is the part that makes me fall apart.
You said I will never be your vegetable
Because I think when you’re gone, it’s forever
But you know I’d stand on the corner
Embarrassed with a picket sign
If it meant I would see you when I die
Punisher is haunted by memory, by echoes, and sometimes by literal ghosts. I don’t know if either the song or the album is based on an actual friend Bridgers lost — the singer has always flirted with being a total goth — but it brims over with sadness, with regret, and with beauty. I don’t think there’s a single one of Punisher’s 11 songs that I haven’t become obsessed with and listened to over and over again at one point or another. (Album closer “I Know the End” is the one I’m obsessed with right now, thanks.)
Phoebe Bridgers has been lurking at the edges of the “Emily VanDerWerff’s favorite musicians ever!!!!!” list I scrawled in the back of my Trapper Keeper for a few years now. Her 2017 debut album, Stranger in the Alps, was a terrific introduction to her talent for writing songs that perfectly capture singular, deeply emotional moments in time. It also spawned the minor hit “Motion Sickness,” which is probably the Phoebe Bridgers song you’ve heard if you’ve only heard one Phoebe Bridgers song.
Since the release of Stranger, Bridgers has also shown a talent for finding great people to collaborate with. Boygenius, her 2018 team-up with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus (similarly smart white girl singer-songwriters, with music steeped in a combination of queer culture and naked emotion) was the rare supergroup that ended up being more than the sum of its parts. In 2019, Bridgers hooked up with Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst (who contributed guest vocals to Stranger’s “Would You Rather” and pops up again on Punisher) for the rousing Better Oblivion Community Center.
But Punisher, which came out in June, is a massive leap past everything else she’s done so far. The sense of loss, death, and grief that permeates every song on Punisher gives it a unifying theme. That dark theme also gains accidental weight from the album arriving in a summer when the country has been riven, over and over again, by crises that take endless numbers of lives while those in power seem utterly oblivious to what’s happening.
An album like Fiona Apple’s Fetch the Bolt Cutters (another of the year’s best) captures the fury pulsing throughout the world right now, but Punisher finds the quieter, more private flip side of that anger. Bridgers, too, is angry about everything she’s lost, but there’s a solitude to it and to her sadness as well. The album occasionally reminds me of sitting across a table from a good friend who’s going through hell, just listening to them talk and nodding every so often as your coffee goes cold.
A thing I think about a lot is how wired our culture is toward the idea of solving emotions, not sharing them. If somebody comes to me with a problem, my temptation is usually to offer advice rather than to first ask, “Hey, do you want some advice?” More often than not, what my friend wants is for someone else to live in their emotion with them. An attempt to solve the problem too often dismisses the gravity of how horrible that emotion feels in the moment. And yet, isn’t our human impulse to help make the emotion go away? We are, after all, just trying to help a loved one in crisis, and “help” so often takes the form of “solutions.”
What I love about Punisher is how it chronicles Bridgers’s discovery that the solution is often in the solidarity. These are songs about how hard it is to lose someone and to find that, in the process of mourning, you’ve shed some part of yourself like so much dead skin.
The cover of the album features Bridgers in a skeleton costume — a cheeky follow-up to the bedsheet ghost that adorned Stranger — but it’s more than a wink and a nod to Bridgers’s fascination with kindergarten Halloween iconography. Punisher is, at its core, about how often the best way forward is to strip yourself down to the bone and ask those you love if they still love you back. The answer is usually “yes,” and when someone else moves in to share that sorrow, that loss, that grief alongside you, the healing can begin.
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