Whatever She Wants: A love letter to Phoebe Bridgers and Punisher
A review of what I believe is one of the best albums ever made, Phoebe Bridgers Sophomore LP and quarantine hit "Punisher".
2019, sometime in summer, 5:15am, I woke up on a friend’s couch to the sun shining in my face and the sound of a woman playing an acoustic guitar. "Jesus Christ, I'm so blue all the time. And that's just how I feel, always have and I always will." The lyrics were striking but intriguing nonetheless, I realized I had fallen asleep listening to some album that had clearly long passed, and I was now listening to whatever Spotify had decided I needed to hear that night. I don’t know how much I believe in things like destiny and fate, but I do feel very lucky that my body had chosen to wake me up to that song specifically. I added it to my library and quickly fell back asleep, and for the next year or so I found myself returning to that song more and more. It’s excruciatingly sad, with the main focus of the song literally being a child’s funeral, but it’s a pain that I seemed to tempt myself with more often than was good for me. Even still, I didn’t visit the rest of Phoebe Bridger’s discography until months later. I’m not sure why considering how fond I was of Funeral, but it wasn’t until after her next release that I became the “Pharb” I am today.
2020, sometime in summer, 6:30pm, this time I was alone in bed about an hour into a TikTok binge. I resent that app for so many reasons, the main one being that it’s the most addictive social media I’ve ever used by a LOT, but there are also many reasons why I keep coming back. So, I come across a video where someone is voicing their love for Aubrey Plaza (TikTok’s algorithm proving once again to be unquestionably good at its job). The audio chosen for the video is a song called “Graceland Too”, which was chosen for the repeating lyrics “whatever she wants” and “I would do anything for you”. It was at that moment that I realized two things. The first was “Oh my God, this is the girl who did Funeral,” and the second was “Oh my God, this song is so good and I’ve only heard 10 seconds of it.” I leave the app to go listen to it and the only way I can describe the experience is if Funeral hit me in the chest, Graceland Too hit me like a god damn bus. Nothing makes me cry (that’s not a brag, I’m emotionally stunted), but Graceland Too made me sob. It’s a song about being in love with someone who hates themself, inspired by classic folk, scored by a banjo and deceptively simple in its composition, and not only is the melody hauntingly beautiful, the track culminates in a climactic finish with 3 sets of vocals repeating over and over “Whatever she wants.” It’s a f*cking masterpiece, and I spend nearly an hour listening to it on repeat just to hear those final lines. “I would do anything, I would do anything, whatever you want me to do I would do.” This pushed me over the edge, and I was finally ready to delve into the world of Phoebe Bridgers, with whatever consequences that came with.
When I chose to write this review on Bridgers music, I knew my main focus had to be on her 2020 sophomore LP “Punisher”. The album is 11 songs and about 40 minutes long, named after a term used in the world of music to describe someone who is so consumed by something they’re a fan of to the point that they punish the people they talk to. In the title track (which I’ll go into further detail later), Phoebe goes on to describe how she feels like a Punisher when it comes to her hero, Elliott smith. His influence is apparent on everything she does, but there are certain moments on this album where his style comes out in full. Phoebe came into the spotlight after releasing her first album “Stranger in the Alps”, the album that introduced me to Funeral and became a reference point for the rest of her career. Some people may disagree with me, but I believe that Punisher is an improvement on SITA in nearly every way, which is saying a lot considering how good her first album was off the bat. I think the reason this album was able to shine is in part because of how many people helped it come to life. At the center of it all are her producers, Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska, who’ve been working with Phoebe for years prior. They put all they had into not only making this album sound fantastic but turning Phoebe’s lyrics and ideas into something even better. Then you’ve also got all the musicians who gave their time and their voices to her songs, including but not limited to her bandmates Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus, Christian Lee Hutson, Jim Keltner, Blake Mills, and Bright Eyes legend Conor Oberst. Hearing Julian and Lucy at the end of Graceland, or Conor on Halloween made me realize just how powerful bringing in the right voices can prove to be. Finally, this album was released during the first few months of Covid, which means no live shows. She knew that releasing the album when she did was going to hurt her chances on the charts, but she also knew that in some way or another people needed her music. She wrote punisher while on tour for Stranger in the Alps, and it covers themes of loneliness, horniness, atheism, heartache, and deep frustration, which was how a lot of us were feeling during those first few months of quarantine. It was a sort of shared trauma, and this album fit the mood so well for her fans and for myself. It’s been over a year since I listened to the album for the first time and I’ve since developed an affinity for every single track. I’d like to share that affinity with you, and I hope after you listen you’ll find that affinity too.
The album begins with DVD Menu, a minute-long vocal-less overture of the album. The name is a reference to the selection menu that comes before a DVD movie. It’s an appropriate title and an appropriate tone-setter for the rest of the album, but the name also plays well with the themes of nostalgia and childhood that come up in many of the upcoming songs. It pulls melodies from the final track, it sets an eerie and dreamlike mood, and leads perfectly into the first real song on the album, Garden Song.
Garden Song is very low-key, and it never necessarily builds or releases tension. Rather, it rides this consistent thumping hi-passed kick drum and picked electric guitar. It’s an appropriate backdrop to Phoebe’s lyrics about growing up and recurring dreams. She’s said in interviews that she sees the song as a lesson about manifesting. Whether you believe it’s fate and karma that influence your life or whether you believe it’s your actions and perception that will change what happens to you, if you’re someone who can see the good in people and tries to find the light in darkness, that goodness will come back around (and vice versa). The whole song feels like getting high (Phoebe uses the music video to reference this), with images of Nazi corpses and haunted houses, kissing people in your dreams and hopping the fence when you were seventeen. I’ve long wondered why this song was placed before Kyoto, as Kyoto feels much more like an album opener, but I think Garden Song’s quiet reflection is maybe a better opener for this specific project. It creates a tone that the rest of the songs will all follow in one way or another, with Kyoto being no exception.
Phoebe has said in multiple interviews that her “default” when it comes to writing is slow, heart wrenching ballads. While I would still appreciate it if all her songs followed that formula, it also means that she’ll never have any “single” songs or radio hits. That’s where her producers come in. Their ability to turn her soulful poetry into a thumping indie rock track was how Phoebe got “on the map” in the first place with her song Motion Sickness. When album 2 came around, it was Kyoto that got the pop-rock treatment. While it may have been a compromise on her intended vision, I fully believe the song came out better for it. The song is about how much Phoebe hates her Dad, which is why I think the song works both as a slow acoustic piece AND a loud, angry rock track. It combines her struggles with being on tour and the loneliness that comes with, her strained relationship with her absent father, and her memories of childhood, sat next to her brother at goodwill. This is all while being scored with an earworm melody and some blazing horns, which even after a hundred listens simply don’t get old. But don’t get used to those high energy guitars, because the next song pulls it all the way back.
As I mentioned before, the title track focuses mainly on Phoebe’s biggest influence, Elliott Smith. She lives in his same neighborhood, everyone knows that “the way to her heart” is telling stories about him, she knows how sweet he was towards his fans and wishes that she could do the same, etc., etc. But even with all that said, in some way she’s glad that she’ll never meet him. She’s idolized him for so long she doesn’t know what she’d even say. She’s the punisher she always feared she’d become, and she’s kind of glad that she can think of Elliott as a legend, rather than as someone who she could run into at CVS. It’s a hard song to listen to, but I think it’s an important track for the album considering how much his influence shows in her writing. The music is haunting and slow, echoing like rippling water. It’s a much different tone than it’s preceding track, but I think it demonstrates an interesting contrast between bursting frustration and melancholic, quiet acceptance.
The next song, Halloween, continues the (no pun intended) haunting, plucky melodies and slow and subtle atmosphere established by Punisher. Though, this time, we’re introduced to the vocal talents of Bright Eyes’ Conor Oberst. I describe Punisher as encapsulating “quiet acceptance”, which is why I think Halloween serves as a perfect sequel to that track. It details (according to Phoebe) a nearly dead relationship, where both sides are bored, complacent, and leave things unsaid. The central premise is that on one day a year, Halloween, they both can be anything. They can escape the confines of their predetermined roles in the relationship, and they can be honest with each other, which is shown in lines like “I can count on you to tell me the truth when you’ve been drinking and you’re wearing a mask.” The verses are disconnected, and they mainly serve as the stream of consciousness of a defeated and dejected person: subtle observation and quiet moments that become almost suicidal in nature. It’s an interesting look into a relationship on life support, and I personally love the metaphor of halloween as a way to become something other than yourself.
Next up is one that I can particularly relate to, Chinese Satellite. This song deals with a religious crisis, an atheist who wishes they could bring themselves to be spiritual, and a quiet yearning for someone long gone. This song has many lines that are worth mentioning, but the one that gives me chills every time is “But you know I'd stand on the corner, embarrassed with a picket sign if it meant I would see you when I die.” Phoebe would give anything to be someone who believes in God just so she could get some answers to her existential dread. It’s something that I personally have been struggling with for some time now, and I think the desperation that comes with pretending satellites are shooting stars is a really relatable feeling. This song is particularly orchestral, and I think it has some of the most interesting rhythmic and melodic choices of the entire album. I wouldn’t call it a high point of the album, but it does provide a slight moment of levity. To me, Chinese Satellite feels like the difference between struggling to stay afloat in the middle of the sea, and accepting the waves, refusing to swim, and letting the current swallow you whole. The latter, I believe, is a more accurate description of the track that follows, Moon Song.
Someone told me once not to look at an album as a single story, but rather a collection of 2 or 3 chapters with individual intros, climaxes, and outros. If we’re following this narrative, I think Moon Song is the final statement of “chapter one” of Punisher. It’s crushingly desperate, decidedly somber, and intentionally incoherent. We’re shown subtle moments of tenderness between two people, with the through line being that Phoebe would literally give this person the moon if they asked. She feels like she could just keep giving and giving, but she knows that she’s not going to get anything more no matter how hard she tries or how long she spends trying. “And I will for the next time you want me, like a dog with a bird at your door.” Is it worth it? Is the pain of never being able to be with someone in the way you need worth keeping the friendship alive? I think these are the questions she’s asking, questions she doesn’t answer because she simply does not know how, and we don’t either. One of the themes of the album is desperation, and I think no song does more to establish that idea than Moon Song. It’s tough. It’s necessary and it’s beautiful… but it’s tough.
Beginning our next “chapter” is Savior Complex. It’s Delicate, evocative, theatrical, and strangely not depressing. It’s not happy by any means but it is… endearing. It’s conflicted. Phoebe questions whether she’s been kidding herself and her partner into thinking she could “save” them, hence the titular “Savior Complex”. Their relationship might not be the best, neither of them are great people and they both have some pretty big issues to work through, but they’re making it work. It’s fairly playful and honest. I described it as “theatrical” earlier because not only does the song employ detailed imagery, it also feels kind of like a dark comedy. The instrumental certainly adds to this “vibe”, making the song feel wispy and dreamy. The violin melodies and modulated vocals give the whole piece an ethereal quality, and while the composition may not evoke Elliott Smith, the lyrics feel as though they could be cut and paste from Either/Or. She really lets her influences show on this song specifically, and as someone who loves Elliott Smith, I promise you that is a compliment.
Originally released as “I see you”, track nine was released as the third and final single for Punisher. The name was later changed to “ICU” on the album, which Phoebe explains was the song’s original title but she didn’t necessarily feel comfortable releasing something called ICU during a global pandemic. This song is probably the closest Bridgers gets to “alt rock” aside from Kyoto, but to me personally this song specifically feels more true to her style. It also utilizes building and releasing tension in some satisfying ways. While I may not love that the drum almost completely cuts out for the chorus, it feels like an explosion when it comes back for the verse. Lyrically, the song covers the experience of returning to normal post-break-up, and the act of convincing yourself you’re okay. You may not want to be in that relationship anymore, you may not know what you want at all, but that one person still makes you feel something every time you see them. For Phoebe, who wrote the song about her drummer Marshall, I’d guess that she gets that feeling a lot. I think the act of slowing down the choruses and speeding up the verses plays into the themes of indecisiveness and confliction played out in the lyrics. She gets on a roll talking about the failed relationship, but the song slows down every time she says “But I feel something when I see you now”. Even just the use of the word “but” changes the whole context of the song. It’s really interesting and it’s always a good track to revisit both within the album and separately.
I won’t say too much about Graceland Too, as I don’t want to repeat myself, but this song still gives me chills to this day. It may not be the album closer, nor do I think it should be, but it’s a moment of finality for Punisher that I think was a necessary step before the actual last song. It reminds me of Taylor Swift’s “Betty” in the way that neither of them utilize drums throughout the entire song, which I genuinely think is impressive. The ability to make a song that hits, let alone one that hits as hard as Graceland Too, without even a kick drum is tough as hell. It’s just really good, and it’s good in an infectious way. It hooks you, it draws you in, it crushes you, and it makes you want more. And, like I said, it leads damn near perfectly into our final moments with the album.
I Know the End is wild. Even though it starts incredibly slow, it’s slow in a much different way than Punisher or Moon Song. I may be biased considering I’ve heard this song many times, but I believe there’s something in the samples and synths being used that feels like you’re on the up part of a rollercoaster, inching closer and closer to the top. On the surface, I Know the End is about the apocalypse. Phoebe imagines driving to her grandparents’ house in California, seeing billboards about the rapture, playing some stadium country music in her car, and seeing government drones/alien spaceships in the distant horizon. In a broader sense, within the context of the rest of the album, I Know the End serves as a thematic resolution to some of the ideas that were previously established in earlier songs. Ideas like nostalgia, desire, apathy, and death. It takes its time building up to the climax, but I promise this song absolutely deserves its nearly 6 minute runtime. The grand finale to both the song and the album is explosive, intense, and dramatic. There’s about a minute of crashing drums and horns and chanting that all follow the established melody in the song, and just when you think it can’t get any better there’s almost another minute of corrosive, dark wailing guitars and literal wails as Phoebe and company scream their lungs out. It’s euphoric and climactic and final and angry. While Graceland Too closes out the somber and tearful aspects of Punisher, I Know the End closes out the anger, the frustration, the fear. It takes the idea of building and releasing tension that I described in ICU and turns it up to 11, and after the roller coaster of emotions that Punisher puts us through, it’s a well-needed closing curtain.
2021, sometime in September, 2:38am, I sit finishing my review of what I believe is one of the best albums ever written. It’s hard to tell sometimes whether I believe something is actually good or whether I just really like it, but I think this is one of the cases where it doesn’t matter... because it’s both. I love this album for many reasons, but the most important reason is because it’s just genuinely a really well made expression of art. If you’ve made it this far through the review and still feel skeptical about whether you should go check it out, I encourage you to simply experience the album for yourself. I can talk and talk and talk about how much each of these songs mean to me, but it’ll never compare to the experience of listening to Punisher all the way through for the very first time. I may not be early to the Phoebe Bridgers train, not by a long shot, but I think I’m okay with knowing I’m still fairly new to her world. It just means there’s more to discover and there’s more to look forward to. I certainly cannot wait til her next big project, and because this is supposed to be a “love letter” to Phoebe and her music, I’ll sign it out with just a simple message.