Is Phoebe Bridgers ‘folk’? Asking for a friend. There’s plenty to suggest that, no, she’s really not. Punisher doesn’t sound like an obvious folk record. It’s all a bit sleek and modern. Besides, and most tellingly, there’s literally no squeeze-box at all anywhere on it.
But then again, there’s plenty to suggest, yes she really is. That’s even if you set aside the various artists she’s been compared with, and instead consider a key distinguishing facet of folk. Namely a particular focus on the words and the phrases, and the stories being told. And from that perspective, then hey, maybe Bridges is pretty damn folk after all.
In the end, whatever box makes sense for you to put Bridgers in makes little difference to the fact that Punisher is fantastic. Here can be found a series of heartbreaking tales, heavy with woozy atmosphere, told with humour, panache and that sparkle with fantastic lines. Lines that make you smile, lines that make you wince in sympathy, and lines that stop you dead and question if you just heard the thing which you think you just heard.
Like the vague allusion to murder that Garden Song opens up with (“And when your skinhead neighbour goes missing / I’ll plant a garden in the yard”). Or in Punisher, Bridgers’ tribute to Elliott Smith, where she manages to plot a path between evocative descriptions of LA neighbourhoods (“But from the window, it’s not a bad show / If your favourite thing’s Dianetics or stucco”) with concern she’s coming across badly to her most ardent fans (“I swear I’m not angry / that’s just my face”). Or the heartbreakingly blunt desire of Moon Song (“You couldn’t have / Stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody / Who loves you more”).
It really does them no favours to catch, extract and pin them to the page like some kind of amateur lyrical lepidopterist. Encased in proper surroundings, galavanting with their friends and compatriots, they’re even better. But the very fact that Bridgers makes you want to do that, makes you want to go and point out the specific instances of her songwriting to people you barely know, is a pretty compelling testament to her abilities.
There’s also something brilliant in the way she manages the balance between happy and sad. Lead single Kyoto glitters and bounces, a certain neon-tinged haze in its eye, a certain brassy sweep in its chorus, but countered with a vocal that drips with weariness and anti-wanderlust.
And don’t think that Bridgers can’t do big, either. The climactic I Know The End manages itself deftly as part ballad, part the kind of candy-coloured apocalypse that The Flaming Lips have made a career out of. It’s a magnificent end to a magnificent album.
Punisher is funny but serious, subtle yet obtuse, familiar and somehow simultaneously entirely unique. Even if in the final analysis it’s still not massively folky.