My Favourite Album of 2020 - Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
Hey everyone, and welcome to my best of 2020 stuff! It has certainly been a year and I wanted to look for a way to talk about everything I loved without feeling terrible about notable omissions. There will still be a Top 7 for films, because I continue to consume them like it's going out of business (a poor simile perhaps, given the circumstances), but I wanted to talk about the video games, TV and albums I loved this past year despite having not experienced some of the biggest ones. For that problem, I settled on the solution of writing about my favourite example of each medium in depth, with some honourable mentions scattered at the bottom. Hopefully that makes sense, but I'm sure it'll become clear as I talk more, starting with my favourite album of 2020: Phoebe Bridgers' Punisher.
I don't know how you've felt for the last ten months, but for me it's felt a little bit like everything is about to explode all the time. The phrase I keep returning to is "my head is a jungle" and though there have been high moments for me this year, it has felt a little bit like the lamest apocalypse movie imaginable. Into this catastrophe comes Punisher. Bridgers had originally pushed the release of her second album back a few months but in June, with it becoming clear that an end to the pandemic was not around the corner and (in an abridged version of her own words) not wanting the to see the return of a normal that meant murder on the streets and exploitation in the sheets, the album was released. This pandemic has been made of a handful of moods and while the early month or two felt exciting and like a hiatus from normal, June felt truly despairing. Though she didn't plan it, Bridgers lyrics reflect the pain of moments like these.
Before I attempt any actual music analysis, it's worth pointing out that Bridgers is an outstanding lyricist, something that holds together every single one of her songs. She writes of awful and sad things, but in a way that is so genius it can't help but give you a little bit of life every time you catch a new bit of wordplay. As an example, let's point to "Kyoto", the breakout hit of the record. This is a rock song, not something Bridgers is famed for, but she has the screams to make you believe this is what all her songs could sound like. Over a rocking bass, she sings lines as tragic as "I'm going to kill you, if you don't beat me to it", but the dissonance between the rock and the rage never conflict. In fact, they only improve the song. Another example of a similar note would be "ICU", which has the misleadingly upbeat refrain of "I feel something, when I see you now" before crashing back down with "I used to light you up, now I can't even get you to play the drums". Every song on this album that sounds upbeat has the veneer of positivity nailed, but digging underneath reveals these beautifully tragic lyrics.
As with her first album Stranger in the Alps, there are also plenty of songs here that are absolutely miserable ballads, in which Bridgers tears her heart out. Here, the grim contrast of upbeat and desolate comes not through the melody but the lyrics themselves. "Halloween", for example, starts with a grim joke about being woken up by ambulance sirens, where Bridgers sings "We used to joke that if they woke you up, somebody better be dying". With lines like this, I think Bridgers nails the feeling of twinned irony and sincerity of the digital age, in which lines like these can be jokes or cries for help, or both at once. King of the heart breakers on this album is "Moon Song", which is one the saddest songs I think I have ever heard, and possibly a reference to It's a Wonderful Life. It's worth a listen if you're unfamiliar and feeling stable, but God does it nail the feeling of being in an unhealthy relationship. Some lines are tragically relatable, like "You'll ask to walk me home, but I have to carry you", but then others just destroy me every time. The crowning achievement is probably "You are sick, and you're married, and you might be dying. But you're holding me like water in your hands". Bridgers is open about her songs being a reflection of her own trauma and it unfortunately shows. You don't write lyrics this sickeningly powerful without some intense confrontation of your own demons.
These two strains come together in "I Know The End", my song of the year. It is one of those rare songs that is a song in three acts. We begin in the sad section of Bridgers, in which she muses on her position in life, both metaphorically and geographically. In this section she sings lines like "when I get back I'll lay around, then I'll get up and lay back down" and "there's no place like my room" and this year, those lyrics feel like they've become personal, the latter having morphed into "there's nowhere but my room" for many of us. It's full of musings of these variety, still excellent but what you would expect from Bridgers. And then a guitar kicks in, followed by drums. We slowly move into this second act, in which the apocalyptic imagery becomes really potent, Bridgers singing of "a haunted house, with a picket fence, to float around and ghost my friends". Those drums and guitar are building, with a trumpet coming through. These lead into the third act, a cacophonous catharsis. The drums keep crashing, Bridgers keeps singing "The end is here" and suddenly she erupts into screams. Punisher feels like a punishing album at times, but this finale is an outburst for that energy. Just as Bridgers screams along to some America First rap country song, you should scream along to her screams, exhuming all your anxiety and pain and fear. We need a good scream right now, or at least I do, and every time I reach the end of this record, it is like something in me has been purged. I feel better. I do not understand enough about music theory to tell you why, I can only tell you it works for me.
In short, Bridgers has written an album for late night, existential walks and as someone who has been taking a lot of late night, existential walks in the last year, she sees part of my soul that has been hidden even from myself. With every month that this album is in my life, a new lyric or entire song stands out to me as a work of genius, meaning that an inevitable listen back to the album always feels fresh. I wish it wasn't so suited to the year but not only is Punisher my favourite album of the year, it is the one that best encapsulates the anxiety and pain and terror that I've been feeling. Fingers crossed for something lighter next year though.
Honourable Mentions (in no particular order)