Punisher (Dead Oceans/Inertia)
On Punisher, an album whose title strikes with clarity (even if you don’t know it refers to awkward super fans) the songs work the edges of uncertainty. They appear to be hovering between sleep and consciousness, between fog and clear sky, between being grasped and slipping away.
Within them, Phoebe Bridgers’ stories move in and out of relationships, ask questions about trust and belief, reveal hurt and change. Solid stuff, tangible, not hiding from the subject or her place within them. This is not where the blurring occurs.
These songs are elegant songs on the corner of rock and pop, on the line between The National and Elliott Smith, and the appeal is evident, abundant even. But the stories come in packages, and eventually in an album, which create the impression of lines dissolving - between instruments, between voices, between tracks, and eventually between us.
The flurry of drums in Chinese Satellite feels muffled but nonetheless insistent, though you can’t explain what the imperative is. The guitar peeks its head above the parapet and slips through, but as you think that’s the path, it reverses course. Bridgers looks at the sky and sees something, wants to believe, but doubts herself; makes a declaration of fealty and need, but cedes ground to the inevitable; reclaims her space but doesn’t expect to hold it. “Sometimes when I can’t sleep, it’s just a matter of time before I’m hearing things.
In Halloween, her voice hovers over what may be strings and guitar, or maybe even horns, giving you the impression that it is always just about to fade away. It doesn’t, but every time I play it I have that sensation of not being sure if it won’t really happen eventually. The instruments rise in prominence and fall back, the vocal is doubled and then added to (in this case a male voice), but never does the balance tip another way. It’s there, it’s graspable, but not holdable.
In the seemingly straightforward, almost folk-pop Garden Song, which feels like a blend of Joan As Policewoman’s tenderness and Bon Iver’s vulnerability, the initial clarity of childhood blending into adult understanding, acquires a patina of dream-state that puts everything into question.
And even the punchy, brass-enhanced Kyoto feels like it is running through lowering light, fog encroaching on its brightness, so that when the elegant title track arrives it seems right that it rises in exactly that fog.
The balancing act between clarity and opacity is never resolved. In the album’s penultimate song, Graceland Too, a banjo and accordion play sharply against the diffused lines of her voice, the mountain melody and harmonies pretty in overlay, but what may be a harmonium rising and falling in hushed breaths. Then I Know The End brings a mystifying clash of images and knowledge, a rising tide of sound and voices, a climax of brass and shouted refrain, a cry of anguish and twisting trumpet, that dissolves into … what exactly? I don’t know if it is triumph or despair, a swirling conundrum or a release.
But maybe the end of the album is not the place to seek answers when you can’t be sure that you’ve got a handle on the questions asked along the way. The journey though, well that’s been mesmerising often enough.