Monday, November 22, 2021

CD Odyssey Disc 1519: Phoebe Bridgers

It’s been a long day, and as Leonard Cohen once sang, I just want “to get lost in that hopeless little screen.” But my wise and caring wife reminds me that getting lost in the written word is likely to be much better for what ails me. So here I am…and here we go.

Disc 1519 is….  Punisher

Artist: Phoebe Bridgers

Year of Release: 2020

What’s up with the Cover? Behold, the red planet Mars! Where the dead cavort among the broken stones and dream of vengeance!

Does this dread spirit have some power to destroy music? Because as I listen to the record the sound is all wrong, as though possessed by some terrible spirit…[insert 20 minutes of Logan testing various connections to the point of panic].

And…I’m back. Whew! I thought for a moment that my headphones (which I fucking LOVE) had finally given up the ghost. But no, it was just a broken cord, making the record sound garbled. Thankfully I have a spare and I’m back.

Also, it’s just Phoebe in a skeleton suit, no undead horrors from outer space. That was also a false alarm.

How I Came To Know It: I loved Bridgers’ first solo record “Stranger in the Alps” (Disc 1410) and also her work with Conor Oberst as part of Better Oblivion Community Center (Disc1292). In fact, both those records got 5 stars, so buying “Punisher” seemed like a no-brainer.

How It Stacks Up: I have two Phoebe Bridgers albums, and although this one is amazing, I still have to put it in #2.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Punisher” is a breathy confessional that will wrap itself around you like a swirling fog; cold, comforting and possessed of a churning energy underneath. This is a stark and honest record, with Bridgers stitching together relatively simple imagery to generate surprisingly complex emotions.

For an album that will blow your mind, this honesty starts a bit too literal, with “DVD Menu/Garden Song”. You know that ambient, circular quality the music has on your DVD menu? The kind that lets it start again from the beginning every couple of minutes with minimal disruption to the flow? Well…that’s how this song starts. It isn’t bad, but it did make me want to get on with the movie.

Fortunately, that is the last time the record seriously disappointed me, and the “DVD” portion of the song only goes on for a minute, before Bridgers launches into “Garden Song,” lilting her way into your heart with her dreamy head voice. Some breath singers let that sound become an affectation, but Bridgers vocals have an easy power and clear enunciation, even as her ethereal delivery makes you certain elves are nearby.

After the relatively sleepy beginning, Bridgers launces into “Kyoto”. With its galloping tempo and wistful, “I’m spinning pixie-like around lamp posts” melody it makes you feel energized and thoughtful at the same time. It is almost meditative the way she can take all those layers of sound, and then plot your course through it so you never lose touch with the story she weaves. The song was destined to be a hit and, for once, radio America got it right. Well, it broke the Top 40 anyway, which for thoughtful indie music is a win.

I have a lot of favourites on this record, but “Halloween” is particularly beautiful. I’ve always loved the effect Halloween has on people, and its ability to make us feel safer in our truth when protected by the psychological armour of costume. Or in the context of the song:

“But I count on you to tell me the truth
When you’ve been drinking
And you’re wearing a mask.”

The song could be the contemplation of a crime, or just a couple that have had too many, but determined to dance the night away in honour of the titular holiday. Maybe something else besides. All I know is it evokes a sense of sad but celebratory excess.

While all the songs have the same atmospheric alternative pop quality, Bridgers shows subtle range and artistry dressing that sound up in different styles. “Graceland Too” could be an alt-country classic with different production decisions. The violin and banjo featuring prominently would be a giveaway regardless, along with lyrics like:

“She picks a direction, it’s 90 in Memphis
Turns up the music so thoughts don’t intrude
Predictably winds up thinking of Elvis
And wonders if he believed songs could come true.”

Here Bridgers has managed to write a song about someone thinking about country music, while thinking about something else, all the while writing a song that is country music, while also being something else. I’d say it’s clever, but that would imply it wasn’t also beautiful, and the truth is, it is both.

Speaking of that violin, it is played brilliantly by none other than Sara Watkins (Watkins Family Hour). The record also features guest vocals from Lucy Dacus, Conor Oberst and a host of other musicians I generally love, all of whom serve the song first.

And before I conclude, I would be remiss to not point out just how awesome the CD booklet is. Not only does it contain all the lyrics (I encourage you to follow along for maximum enjoyment) but also a series of black and white drawings by artist Chris Riddell that are both whimsical and provocative. Thank you, Phoebe Bridgers, in the midst of this digital-only wasteland, for still making the physical medium a treasure to buy and won.

I ranked Bridgers’ first album my #4 record for 2017, and I put 2019’s Better Oblivion Community Center at #2. I put “Punisher” in at #6 for 2020 as Phoebe Bridgers once again hits one out of the park.

Best tracks: Kyoto, Punisher, Halloween, Chinese Satellite, ICU, Graceland Too

No comments: