Greetings, Glancers! We’re back for another album I’ve never heard by an artist I’ve never heard of. At least that was the case when I first started this journey – but since then I have come to learn the name ‘Phoebe Bridgers’. I still don’t know who she is, what type of music she performs, and as far as I can tell I haven’t heard any of her songs. I do know that she provided dome vocals for the last Perfume Genius album I listened to – does that hint at her own sound?
Does this album artwork provide any additional foreknowledge? It seems to be someone in a skeleton outfit, standing in a stark, moon or desert like surrounding, looking up at the starry night. She looks very tiny. Nice colour contrasts. Does the red signify something is shining back at her? Like a UFO? If so, that’s like at least the third 2020 album artwork which has depicted such things. You know the drill – by the time I write the next paragraph, I’ll have heard the thing a few times.
Man, this is an album I so dearly wanted to love. There is so much to love for someone with my tastes and possibly with more time I would get to that point. However, it’s one of those albums where my feelings could go one of two ways; either I’ll completely fall for it, or the pieces which I don’t currently enjoy will swarm and force me backwards.
My first impression of the first few songs gave me some pause for concern; I was worried it was going to be too twee, too hipster. Like so many modern or recent artists of this introverted, lighter folk style, there is the risk that the entire lack of substance and focus on style (no different from the mainstream pop stars they enjoy mocking), and the pseudo-intellectual naval gazing would turn me off completely. You just know there’s going to be at least one person in the band with a beard and a ridiculous hairdo. These artists tend to follow a particular playing style, and the vocals are almost uniformly tepid. Thankfully, Punisher has a lot of lyrical depth and emotion to make Phoebe stand out from the crowd she may find herself associated with. Her vocals rarely show any dynamics or force or edge, but they are so earnestly fragile that they largely avoid falling into the twee category.
Speaking of the fragility of the vocals leads me to my prime impression of Phoebe, and the album as a whole. Whatever the aural equivalent of a double-take is, is how I reacted when I heard her voice for the first time. She sounds incredibly similar to Gemma Hayes. It’s not just the fragile softness, but it’s the tone, it’s the vocal intonations and inflections, the rasp and whisper. Like Gemma, Phoebe sounds like she’s right there in the room with you, singing directly into your ear and no-one else’s. I went as far as looking into Phoebe’s influences, because it seems impossible for someone to come along and sound this much like a doppelganger without having been influenced, but I couldn’t find anything to say she knows Gemma exists. So either this is all some ridiculous coincidence or there’s some knowing disguising of this emulation. Listen to something like Moon Song from this album, and then listen to something like This Is What You Do by Gemma Hayes. Two very different songs, but two very similar vocals. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide if such comparisons are warranted.
Even with the blatant comparison in how the two singers sound, Phoebe has a much more limited style at least on the evidence of this album. Admittedly I haven’t heard anything from her outside of this album and haven’t heard her perform live. Gemma has a much wider range with her vocals, even if she does remain in a similar style or genre for most of her output, and in the live setting Gemma has the ability to truly belt out some of the bigger choruses and giving them greater urgency over the studio recordings. Based again on this album alone, Phoebe has the edge when considering lyrics – these are more involved, more picturesque and cynical and poetic, and often darker than what Gemma does. Gemma is no slouch when it comes to lyrics, but these hit differently. I will add that I love Gemma’s lyrics – she’s one of my all time favourite artists – but Phoebe’s certainly stand out and have a more alluring quality.
Musically, the album did take a while to shine through for me. My initial listens were frustrated by the lack of variety. It’s an album which does take some effort and time for the musical depth and variance to bubble through, but even after many considered listens there remains a sameness to both the music and certainly the vocals. Phoebe has her style and her favoured inflections and melodies, and absolutely will not veer away from them. Breathy and letting notes fall off and drawl away for that lazy, almost incomplete resolution. Even in the more peppy, poppy songs like Kyoto which are one of the few occasions when her vocals are stretched, the same tricks are applied.
I mention this not because the sameness and lack of variety is an issue in itself, but because it results in a lack of melodic potency, which is one of the key characteristics of my enjoyment of any music. You can have as expressive and intelligent and interesting sounds as you want, but if the same melodies are repeated then my enjoyment will be limited. In isolation, many of these songs are strong and their emotion is potent – the title track, Halloween, Garden Song, I See You Chinese Satellite – but when taken on a listen through the entire album, that sameness does drain on me. Possibly it’s the placement of the songs, leaving the melodic highlights of Kyoto and Graceland Too too far apart, but the album feels like it needs another song of that ilk somewhere in the middle to scrape away some of that sameness.
If the melodies feel lacking in places, the lyrics remain a constant source of intrigue and interest. A wide array of topics and emotions are covered, and it’s never less than highly personal to the point of being invasive, and yet easily understood for anyone with a heart. It’s a stark and welcome departure from the majority of the albums I’ve listened to in my 2020 journey and is easily the best of those from a lyrical perspective. It’s often lyrics which have me invested in an artist and keep me coming back to them even if I’m not as enamoured by the music – get both right, even if only semi-consistently, and I’ll be a fan.
It’s an album then that did leave me somewhat frustrated, but that’s on me. I didn’t get what I wanted – sucks to be me. It’s a great album, but the lack of variety in the melodies and the lack of oomph in the vocals does keep me at a distance. As mentioned, I want to love it and I hope that further listens will pull me in further. It’s an album which has the potential to become a favourite, and Phoebe is an artist who could become a favourite. Even if it turns out that I don’t accept the whole album, I’ll certainly retain I Know The End, Graceland Too, and Kyoto in my playlist for their respective haunting, cathartic, beautiful, and joyous qualities.
Sales: 3. As far as I can tell, it didn’t set the world on fire. I’m totally open to be corrected on this. It may more likely be a 4, but the lack of information online tells me that it wasn’t a smash.
Chart: 4. Top 10 in the UK, outisde the Billboard Top 40 in the US. Yet it was Top 10 in many of those ‘alternative’ charts and hovered around the Top 40 in other territories. Maybe this one should be 3 and Sales is a 4. Does it matter?
Critical: 4. Maybe gets to a 5, but we’ll let time decide. There’s always some newness bias with the latest critical darling.
Originality: 2. Possibly harsh, but beyond being of a younger generation and speaking about the world through those eyes, there isn’t anything revelatory in her lyrics and the music is similar to many many other artists.
Influence: 3. I think she has the voice and the intelligence to inspire others musically, perhaps more importantly even beyond music, but whether she has the reach to influence the next big thing, I don’t know.
Musical Ability: 3. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Lyrics: 5. Perhaps I’m being overly generous and this is a 4, but considering the complete embarrassment of most of what I read in lyrics these days, at least from the charts and from the 2020 albums I’ve heard, this is head and shoulders above anything else.
Melody: 3. Outside of 4-5 songs, the album recycles the same melodic styles.
Emotion: 4. It’s an open, honest, and dark album. There’s a focus on sadness, worry, anger and regret, but there is also love, joy, and tenderness.
Resilience/Lastibility: 3. It remains to be seen, but as mentioned above there’s always the risk that the latest critical darling can be ascribed an immense amount of hype, attention, and acclaim, only for that to be transferred over to the next new thing the moment critical darling A makes the slightest slip-up. Having said that, this does feel topical and seminal – a product of the Cov-Id times – and as such will be an important historical document in the future to show how people at large felt.
Vocals: 3. She adopts a style a like, and has an enjoyable voice, but doesn’t take it to any extremes or in any other direction.
Coherence: 4. Holds together well, and ties into the next category.
Mood: 4. It’s a mostly downbeat album, and that mood of sleepy darkness clicks in from the evocative instrumental opener, all the way through to the screaming closer. Phoebe manages to pull together darkness from her personal life and create a mood which is reminiscent of the chaos, closed in and closed off nature of the last few years.
Production: 4. Much of the album takes a close to minimalist approach, which suits the overall mood and fragility, but rather than being a quiet album, it instead accentuates the chaos of a mind trapped in a small room.
Effort: 3. A high 3, maybe on another day I’d go with 4 because of the lyrics, but on the musical front I’m not sure it gets a 4.
Relationship: 4. As I always preface this category with a direct comparison to myself – I’m not a white American twenty something woman, but I am a human in the 21st Century who lied through lockdown in a Developed nation. Even without Cov-Id, I can relate to isolation and pain.
Genre Relation: 4. Sounds like a lot of the other twee Indie folk stuff, but not as lily-livered or pretentious.
Authenticity: 4. I’ll allow a 4 here. I don’t doubt the feelings and experiences are authentic, but with this genre in this day and age, there’s so much which is false and so much which is reliant on the fact that the artist is a self-claimed quirk with no other talent beyond the ability to purchase cloths from the local Bohemian joint.
Personal: 4. Over time this could drop to a 3. I don’t think it will get to a 5 because so many of the songs follow the same pattern and tone – patterns and tones which don’t do a lot for me. But the lyrics and vocals and the handful of better songs are enough to warrant a 4, and if a couple of those others go up in my estimation, then a 5 may be within reach.
Miscellaneous: 3. The usual – let me know if there’s anything I should be aware of.
Let us know in the comments what you think of Punisher!
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