It’s been two years since current indie It Girl, Phoebe Bridgers released her second studio album Punisher. It’s also been two years since I had a breakdown in the parking lot of a Service NSW building (think Access Canberra) after failing my drivers’ test for the second time. No, these two occasions weren’t related. But a large concrete parking lot would be the perfect space to sit and listen to the harrowing screeches of I Know The End.
Punisher is about finding solace during the apocalyptic and the mundane. During a natural disaster or moving into college. During an alien invasion or attending Sunday mass. During the end of the world or being overstimulated by clearance sale signs in a shopping centre. According to Bridgers, these phenomena are one and the same. On Punisher’s second birthday, I think it’s important to revisit several tracks from the album.
In Garden Song, Bridgers affirms universal truths of millennial culture. She sings of moving away from a hostile hometown; “I grew up here, till it all went up in flames / Except the notches in the door frame” and attempting to navigate a complicated college experience; “Then it’s a dorm room, like a hedge maze.” These chapters are difficult. High school cliques, academic pressures, and friends and family passing away leave you bruised. Flashbacks of embarrassing O-Week activities keep you humbled. But Bridgers sings “Everything’s growing in our garden / You don’t have to know that it’s haunted” stressing that reason, and beauty, and peace, can be cultivated from all the violence. We have the ability to transform our trauma into something or someone better.
In Chinese Satellite, Bridgers attempts to find meaning in the world. She sings “I want to believe / Instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing.” We hear the yearning, longing and desperation in her voice. She wants to buy into aliens or religion. She wants to have these beliefs handed to her on fringe corners of the internet or by a local pastor. It would be comforting to know that there’s a constant, stronger presence. In a 2020 interview, Bridgers reveals “If I’m being honest, this song is about turning 11 and not getting a letter from Hogwarts, just realising that nobody’s going to save me from my life.” I too want to believe. I want to believe that the cost of living will go down, that governments will commit to greater climate action, and that everything will be okay in the end. That a grey alien or a God has everything planned out. Bridgers concludes Chinese Satellite singing “I want to believe / That if I go outside I’ll see a tractor beam / Coming to take me to where I’m from / I want to go home” and I just know that by home she is referring to the innocence and naivety of early childhood. Before we understood all the pressures of contemporary society.
In Kyoto, Bridgers learns to live with those pressures of contemporary society. She sings “I’ve been driving out to the suburbs / To park at the Goodwill / And stare at the chemtrails / With my little brother.” She sits in a large concrete parking lot (me and her are so similar!) and considers her existence. She acknowledges that she can’t change some social and political circumstances. If our tiny little voices can’t completely overhaul the system, should we simply attempt to thrift at second-hand stores, slowly pressure governments, and enjoy time with friends and family instead? Later, on the title-track Punisher, Bridgers laments “The drugstores are open all night”. In a 2018 diary entry, Bridgers writes “Before shows, I often go for a walk. Nine times out of ten, if I see a CVS, I will go in, and nine times out of ten I will buy nothing.” Bridgers may as well find some comfort in the neon storefront lights of all night pharmacies or the colourful, laden shelves inside.
In I Know The End, Bridgers describes the end of the world. She sings of the skaters, and surfers, and other fringe groups who have all but disappeared; “Not even the burnouts are out here anymore” and little moments spent with friends and family as time all but runs out; “Out in the park, we watch the sunset / Talking on a rusty swing set.” This line evokes images of people huddled together as an asteroid or planet collides with Earth. Bridgers doesn’t care that, “Over the coast, everyone’s convinced / It’s a government drone or an alien spaceship.” No, she is “Driving out into the sun / [Letting] the ultraviolet cover [her] up”. She completely embraces the intense, raging fire. “The end is near.” “The end is here”. It is both. Approaching and surrounding. On the horizon and at the shores. We hear people screaming. We hear cymbals and horns and electric guitars. And then we hear Bridgers join in, violently screaming over the top of everyone else, fully surrendering herself, and allowing herself to feel some sort of catharsis in all the chaos.
The cover art of Punisher shows Bridgers dressed in her iconic skeleton suit staring up at a mysterious red glow in the night sky. We are left guessing the source of the light. Is it the lights of a nearby shopping centre? Is it a government drone? Is it an alien spaceship? According to Bridgers, there’s not much of a difference anyway.
Originally published in Woroni Vol. 72 Issue 4 ‘Alien’
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