Phoebe Bridgers has a high, wispy, pretty voice that often camouflages the intense, incisive or batshit things she’s singing about. Combined with the soft-focus production on most of her songs, it’s almost lulling — and if you’re only half-listening, you may not realize a song is told from the perspective of a murderer taking his (or her) last breaths, is a rebuke to her estranged real-life father or is directed at a skeevy former mentor-lover twice her age. (To be fair, you might not know the latter two facts without reading last month’s sprawling, socially distanced Bridgers profile in The New Yorker.) She’s direct without being blunt; her sudden lyrical jabs often flash by before you can immediately process them, like seeing someone you recognize — and might be a little mad at — from a cab.
A prolific songwriter and serial collaborator, in the two and a half years since Bridgers’ breakthrough debut album, “Stranger in the Alps,” she’s dropped an EP as one-third of Boygenius, her harmony-heavy, ironically Crosby Stills & Nash-style “supergroup” with fellow femme bards Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus; released an album with Bright Eyes founder Conor Oberst under the name Better Oblivion Community Center; produced an album for guitarist Christian Lee Hutson; guested on the new 1975 album and lots more. At a time when rock music — at least, traditional rock music — is at an ebb in terms of popularity and relevance, and fans and critics tend to survey the landscape with a shrug, Bridgers and her cohort are a rare bright spot: Although their music probably won’t bring fist-pumping fans to stadiums anytime soon (pandemic or no), she makes a strong case for the premise that, in terms of guitar-based indie rock, the future is female.
The path to “Punisher” — which takes its name from musician slang for an overly attentive fan — also has been paved by a plethora of fawning press that reveals the Pasadena native to be as direct in person as she is in song. Those songs can be snapshots of relationships (“After a while you went quiet / And I got mean”) or comic everyday comments (“I swear I’m not angry, that’s just my face”). She can be casually hilarious (“It’s 90 in Memphis … [she] predictably winds up thinking of Elvis”), rhyme “evangelicals” with “vegetable,” or weigh in with an offhand universal truth (“It’s amazing how much you can say when you don’t know what you’re talking about”). But one of the new album’s most enduring lines is simply “You had to go / I know, I know, I know.”
Yet what paradoxically poises the hushed and subtle “Punisher” to be a major breakthrough is its multigenerational appeal: There’s Elliott Smith and emo rock from her own youth; the Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters she was raised on; and even splashes of Gen X-era Liz Phair/Belly alt-rock. Nearly all of the album’s sharp edges are in the lyrics: The music is often blurred and impressionist, with guitars and keyboards so heavily treated with effects they sound otherworldly, voices wafting in like clouds and drifting away again, and often little or no percussion. Bridgers sings in an unhurried voice, not afraid to let a simple line hang (“I Know the End”) or unspool an ambitious melody (“Savior Complex”). Still the wisp can wear thin, so Bridgers and co-producers Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska mix things up with strings (“Savior Complex”), an Oberst duet (“Halloween”), and a mini Boygenius reunion on the Nashville-flavored “Graceland Too,” which features high-capo’ed acoustic guitars and country luminary Sara Watkins on fiddle, and could be a Highwomen song (it’s sure to have alt-country fans clamoring for a Boygenius country album).
And yet in the closing minutes of the final track, “I Know the End,” the musicians pile on so much noise — horns, crashing cymbals, guitar feedback, a chorus shouting, “The end is near!,” even a scream — that it’s as if she’s trying to crash the conceits of the preceding 10 songs. But then it all fades away, and the only sound left is Bridgers making a whooshing noise and laughing quietly — a self-deprecating end to an album she must know is one of the year’s best.