Phoebe Bridgers is often the subject of maybe my least favorite form of praise: “wise beyond her years.” The implication of that phrase is that if Bridgers (who is 25) sounded her age, her music wouldn’t be noteworthy or interesting. But by adopting a quiet, deadly serious folk style, her work is perceived as “mature” and “sophisticated,” earning her the attention of critics and listeners who want to celebrate young, up-and-coming artists without feeling like they’re listening to “kids music.” When I listened to her latest album, Punisher, I found myself longing to hear music by a young person who actually was willing to sound like they were in their early-mid 20s. That would be more honest and authentic than these listless songs that mistake the absence of joy for profundity.
“Joy” in this case doesn’t mean that Bridgers should make overtly happy-sounding music when that isn’t who she is. What I wanted to hear on Punisher was any sense of creative spark or a feeling that Bridgers loves making music. Artists like Fiona Apple and PJ Harvey made serious music in their early 20s, but there was a life and verve in their performances, even if the subject material was dark. Rid of Me was a messed-up album, but when I listened to it, I knew that PJ Harvey was incredibly passionate about what she was doing and there was catharsis there due to its extreme, daring sound. It’s hard to glean anything close to that from Punisher, which is constantly stuck in a whispery, slow-tempo rut that lacks any feeling of youthful exploration. I’ve also praised contemporary artists like Girlpool and Free Cake For Every Creature for portraying early-mid 20s life with somewhat similar poetry to Bridgers. Those artists were willing to sound their age, with all the vulnerabilities and flaws that entails, whereas Bridgers seems too concerned with proving her wisdom with her unadventurous songs that are obsessively focused on a narrow range of moods (mostly being mopey).
A lot of people love this kind of music, and I guess I just don’t get it. I can recognize that Bridgers is good at what she is doing, but why would anyone want to listen to this? Everything after the album’s high-point, the third track “Kyoto” — in which Bridgers actually embraces some melody and energy — is one-note and dull. It’s one hushed folk song after another, all done in a style very familiar to anyone who has listened to a Saddle Creek album. Obviously, this is getting into very subjective and nebulous territory (welcome to music criticism), and so I don’t want to be overly critical of Bridgers as a talent when this is a matter of taste more than anything. I’m just struggling to see what separates this from any number of contemporary songwriters who haven’t gotten a fraction of this album’s hype. I also can’t get past a possibly unfair gut feeling that Bridgers is performing this world-weary style because her musical heroes (Conor Oberst, I suspect Neutral Milk Hotel) did it, not because these are sounds and feelings she arrived at organically. It’s hard for me to buy into the material when it’s someone who is 25 going on 60.
“Motion Sickness,” Bridgers’ breakthrough song of sorts, was genuinely great, and should probably be canonized as one of the defining songs of the last few years. I wish anything on Punisher jumped out at me like that track, which had autobiographical lyrics that instantly cut deep and some actual hooks. It’s possible that this album is too subtle and will grow on me, but nothing on it even provided that simple level of intrigue that would make me want to revisit it much more. There is nothing exciting going on here, and at some point an album needs to offer more than just being depressing because that’s what “important music” sounds like.