For a year that teetered much of the time on the verge of total shutdown, 2020 saw the release of a lot of very good music.
Fiona Apple put out an album's worth of new material for the first time in eight years. Bob Dylan showed he still had quite a lot to say at the age of 79. Regular readers know how much I loved Dawes' Good Luck or Whatever. Taylor Swift proved she's not just one of the most accomplished songwriters alive but also one of the most prolific, releasing more than 30 songs written and recorded since the pandemic began.
All of those and many other releases are worthy of sustained attention. But one album stands above them all, and that's Phoebe Bridgers' Punisher. Recorded in bits and pieces throughout 2018 and 2019, the record can't claim to be a real-time reflection on the mood of the pandemic in the way that Swift's Folklore and Evermore can. Yet Bridgers' musical and lyrical sensibility fits 2020's distinctive spirit of suspended animation better than anything else released this year. The album is a cracked and murky mirror held up to our melancholy, isolated bodies and souls.
Not that Punisher is some kind of one-off novelty record. Far from it. Bridgers' 2017 debut, Stranger in the Alps, established her as an accomplished emo-folk songwriter in the mold of the late, great Elliott Smith. Like Smith, Bridgers is an artist with a keen sense of melody and a gift for crafting lyrics that transmute personal traumas and everyday struggles into artfully engaging portraits of human frailty and a longing for connection.
Punisher develops these themes and takes them in expansive new directions while embedding Bridgers' droll observations and emotional insights in a soundscape that is both intensely beautiful and claustrophobic, like a stroll on the bottom of the ocean or the surface of another planet. (The music industry has recognized the album's musical achievement by nominating Bridgers and the record for four Grammys, including best new artist and best alternative music album.)
Bridgers and her collaborators — co-producers Tony Berg and Ethan Gruska; frequent songwriting partners Christian Lee Hutson, Conor Oberst, and Marshall Vore; and a long list of musicians from L.A.'s indie scene — have crafted an album that combines programming, faders, sampling, autotune, and other vocal effects with a wide range of acoustic instruments to create an aural experience that's disorienting in the best way, like a weird, troubling dream that manages to convey something painful, true, and necessary that can't quite be fully described in linear, rational terms.
The album's haunted existentialism is perhaps most powerfully conveyed in “Chinese Satellite,” a heartrending song about Bridgers' tendency to run "around in circles / Pretending to be myself." It culminates in a chorus, set to a lovely string arrangement, that functions as a sort of prayer for redemption from loneliness and doubt.
I want to believeInstead I look at the sky and I feel nothingYou know I hate to be aloneI want to be wrong
Transforming a common quotidian complaint — "I hate to be alone" — into an expression of metaphysical longing that's both darkly funny and profoundly sad is what Bridgers does best, and she does it over and over on Punisher.
The album's songs are filled with vivid, memorable descriptions of ordinary life that resonate with wider meanings. She adjusts plans to plant a garden in response to the activities of a skinhead in the neighborhood. She "wanted to see the world" until she flew overseas and then changed her mind. She makes a morbid joke about the continual sound of sirens from the hospital down the street from her house. (That's just one of many eerie lyrical premonitions of the pandemic sprinkled throughout the album.) She and a friend spend an evening blowing through what's "left of our serotonin" by sitting on the floor and eating a "sleeve of Saltines." She confesses to her married sometime lover that he holds her "like water in your hands."
Such moments of beauty pile up as the album moves toward an ominous conclusion, "I Know the End," in which images from the end of a relationship blur into visions of apocalypse, as a pretty folk melody slowly transforms into a cacophony of clashing chords, swirling noise, and human screams. It's a surprising, chilling, and yet somehow apt end to a record as death-haunted as life itself.
That might sound heavy or depressing, but it isn't at all. Punisher is honest, fierce, extremely tuneful — and the perfect soundtrack to this or any year.