In Rotation: Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers

In Rotation: Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers

Phoebe Bridgers’ sophomore album, Punisher (released June 18, 2020), is an undeniably cohesive work of art. Ranging from heartbreaking ballads such as “Graceland Too” and “Moon Song,” to hurt disguised by an upbeat tempo, shown in “ICU” and “Kyoto,” Phoebe does a brilliant job of storytelling. This album also just so happens to be my personal favorite of all time. Hearing it played live in its entirety has just made me fall even more in love with it. I have so much to say about this album, yet no amount of words or praise will ever do it justice. Ending the album with the showstopper that is “I Know The End” is probably one of the most amazing choices made in music to date. I truthfully believe that Phoebe is one of the top lyricists of our generation. So, let’s get into the breakdown –


DVD Menu

Garden Song




Chinese Satellite

Moon Song

Savior Complex


Graceland Too

I Know The End



1. DVD Menu 

Synopsis– The eerie instrumental introduction to the album evokes a sense of nostalgia in the listeners. The sound replicates the sound of that heard on, if you couldn’t guess, a DVD player before the watcher presses play; and it really sets the tone for what is to come throughout the rest of the record.

Phoebe’s Commentary– Phoebe states that “[i]t’s a reference to the last song on the album–a mirror of that melody at the very end. And it samples the last song of my first record–”You Missed My Heart”–the weird voice that you can sort of hear. It just felt rounded out to me to do that, to lead into this album.” (via Apple Music)

2. Garden Song 

Synopsis– This song, which is the lead single on the album marked Phoebe’s solo return since her 2017 album, Stranger In The Alps. As stated by Phoebe, this song is about recurring dreams and nightmares that she had been having while on tour. All-in-all, the song is about growing up–physically, developmentally, and even emotionally. A lot of it references Phoebe’s own childhood and growth that double as metaphors that can serve as relation to experiences for anyone listening.

Lyric Pullouts–

“Off the bridge at the Huntington

I hopped the fence when I was seventeen 

Then I knew what I wanted” (Chorus 1)

This experience of Phoebe’s teenage rites of passage, such as doing something that maybe wasn’t totally legal (trespassing), kind of solidified what she wanted out of life. She comments “I broke into Huntington Gardens in Pasadena with…friends…and I was like I want to be cool” (via Twitter). The lyric reflects on how when we’re younger, we may act or believe as if we know exactly what we want, but as we grow we realize what we want is almost always ever-changing.

“And when I grow up, I’m gonna look up 

From my phone and see my life” (Verse 2)

Although Phoebe herself is not a part of Gen Z, these two lines seem to encapsulate the Gen Z experience of spending way too much time on one’s phone that leads to everyone just living vicariously through each other. The lyric reflects on how if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in the moment, life can pass by extremely fast.

3. Kyoto

Synopsis– On the surface, Kyoto is a song in which Phoebe reflects on her time spent in Japan and the feelings of imposter syndrome she had because of “being on tour and hating tour, and then being home and hating home.” But digging deeper, it displays much of the emotional turmoil and complex relationship between her and her father.

Lyric Pullouts–

“I wanted to see the world 

Then I flew over the ocean 

And I changed my mind (woo)” (Chorus 1)

Like most people, Phoebe had the dream of traveling the world and seeing all of the sights there were to behold. But unlike a lot of us, Phoebe actually gets to experience it through her touring. But what she thought would be a magical and enchanting thing turned out to be something that, for lack of a better phrase, took the life out of her. As much as she loved getting to perform live, touring made her extremely exhausted and drained.

“I don’t forgive you 

But please don’t hold me to it” (Chorus 2)

In dealing with an abusive parent, whether it be physically or emotionally, a child’s perception, thoughts, and feelings are constantly changing. One day it can be “I hate what we’re going through and I want to fix things to be better” and the next it’s “I absolutely hate what they’re doing to me and I want them out of my life completely.” This lyric completely encapsulates the feeling of “I don’t like you and I don’t want to be like you but I really don’t want you to hate me for what I feel about your actions.” Phoebe even recalls her own thoughts on her relationship with her father, saying, “I feel so much…empathy and so much..anger toward him…It’ll always be day to day: Are we talking, are we not talking?”

4. Punisher 

Synopsis– This is a song that Phoebe wrote about Elliot Smith, her personal favorite artist and musical hero. On a literal level, the song is about a fictional encounter between the two, but it goes deeper to reveal that Phoebe believes she would not have been a good person for Smith to meet. She reflects on the glazing over of a fan’s eyes when they meet their idol, how excited and nervous and maybe even “crazy” they are during this exchange without realizing that it isn’t as amazing for the artist, and can feel like a burden for them if too extravagant. But, Phoebe begins to grasp and understand she would be in that fan position had she met Smith before he passed away. Phoebe also notes that the actions of the fan is what makes them the “punisher.”

Lyric Pullouts–

“And here, everyone knows you’re the way to my heart 

Hear so many stories of you at the bar” (Verse 2)

Phoebe goes into depth about how much she loves Elliot Smith to practically any and everyone she meets. So after moving out to the area where he lived prior to his death, anytime she meets someone from the industry, they automatically go into detail about their personal stories with Smith because they know how big of a part he plays in Phoebe’s life.

“What if I told you 

I feel like I know you 

But we never met 

It’s for the best” (Chorus 2)

This lyric mirrors the first chorus except for one minor edition–the last line. The feeling that Phoebe gets from Smith’s music allows her to feel connected to him, like she really knows him as a person, a feeling that I know all too well. When immersed in one’s music for such a long time and in such depth, it really allows a person to feel as though they understand who the artist is. Except, like Phoebe with Smith, they’ve never met. In this chorus, Phoebe adds “It’s for the best” after the third line. This reflects on how the more she thinks about it, the more she comes to terms with the fact that had they met, she’d become the “punisher” for Smith.

“I can’t open my mouth and forget how to talk 

‘Cause even if I could 

Wouldn’t know where to start 

Wouldn’t know when to stop” (Outro)

These lines express the overwhelmingness that comes with meeting someone that you love so dearly but don’t actually know. You feel like you have so much to talk about with them, or to them, but you can’t even compose words to say to them. But once you do, you just can’t shut your mouth. The insertion of the line “‘Cause even if I could” adds to the fact that there is no way that Phoebe would ever be able to talk to Smith, seeing as he passed away before she’d have the chance to. One thing I also love about this outro is the production of it. I find it really cool how immediately after she sings “Wouldn’t know when to stop,” the instrumental cuts out completely, and the song ends just a few seconds later.

5. Halloween 

Synopsis– The song reflects on a relationship that is dying, or maybe already is dead. It’s run its course and there’s no reason to keep it going, but neither partner wants to end things. Phoebe says that it’s “like you’re bored and sad and you don’t want drama, and you’re just waking up every day just wanting to have [things] be normal, but it’s not that great.” Aside from this, the track also captures a lot of very seemingly “random” things that Phoebe has experienced that are actually quite devastating.

Lyric Pullouts–

“Baby it’s Halloween 

And we can be anything 

Oh, come on, man 

We can be anything” (Chorus 1)

Phoebe is upset with her partner over the fact that for one night only they can’t just put on a mask, hide, and pretend that the issues that they’re facing in their relationship aren’t there, especially on Halloween. On Halloween, people typically dress up and hide themselves behind masks and costumes. Phoebe is wishing that she and her partner could do that, even if it’s just for one night, so they can be happy and enjoy the moment.

6. Chinese Satellite 

Synopsis– Reflecting on her own experience with religion, Phoebe describes her struggles with faith (or the lack thereof) and agnosticism/atheism. It delves into her inner desire to take a leap of faith (as so aptly worded) and become a believer of religion but juxtaposes it with the fact that she just simply cannot, there is nothing there for her to really believe in and she’s unable to wrap her head around it as a whole.

Lyric Pullouts–

“I want to believe 

Instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing 

You know I hate to be alone 

I want to be wrong” (Chorus 1)

Phoebe so badly wants to be a follower of religion, but she just is completely unable to. She tries and tries but it is fruitless as there’s no amount of convincing that can get someone who doesn’t believe to believe; just the same as trying to get someone who believes to stop believing. Unfortunately for her though, this sense of not believing leaves her feeling lonesome, like there’s nothing for her, a feeling that is very common among many atheists and agnostics. She’s hoping (and maybe even praying) to be wrong, for there to be something for her after this life, even if she’s unable to believe in it.

“You were screaming at the Evangelicals 

They were screaming right back from what I remember… 

…But you know I’d stand on the corner 

Embarrassed with a picket sign 

If it meant I would see you when I die” (Verse 2)

These few lines pulled from the second verse reflect on an encounter that Phoebe had with people opposite of her, believers. In an interview with MSNBC, she explains how she was walking down the street with her partner when they came across a group of Evangelicals who were all screaming at her, one who specifically had an extremely “offensive picket sign of insanely homophobic and all this offensive imagery, and he was screaming at me and pointing at me and it so upset me, and [she] kind of got on his face and [they] were yelling at this guy…” She doesn’t agree in any way with what this group of people is promoting but she thinks about how she’d become one of them. She’d join them, if it meant that she’d have somewhere to go after death and in that somewhere she’d be accompanied by her partner, the person she loves.

Phoebe’s Commentary– In addition to the quote from the previous statement, Phoebe also said that “…[her partner] sat for a second and thought of ‘I’d stand on the corner embarrassed with a picket sign if it meant I could see you when I die,’ and I was like, ‘Song done!’ It was amazing. That’s also one of my favorite things about collaborating…” (Via MSNBC)

7. Moon Song 

Synopsis– This song is completely and utterly about the want and even need to give oneself up to and for the benefit of their partner, which is a common theme throughout Punisher. Phoebe expresses that she would do practically anything for her partner, even the impossible of attempting to give them the moon. This track has an abundance of different interpretations and themes but one that truly stands out to me is the theme of unrequited love. Obviously both partners seem to want to be in the relationship yet one (Phoebe) loves their partner so deeply and will do almost anything to feel that love in return.

Lyric Pullouts–

“So I will wait for the next time you want me 

Like a dog with a bird at your door” (Chorus 1)

The “bird at door” line is a topic seen throughout multiple songs of Phoebe’s. Not only does this simile reference the literal trope of a dog bringing its owner a dead bird, where to the dog, the bird seems like a gift, but the owner only sees it as a product of disgust; but it also brings up the fact that she loves this person unconditionally while they only want her on conditional terms.

“And if I could give you the moon

I would give you the moon” (Bridge)

The entire song follows the theme of loving someone so much that you’d do anything to keep them in your life, even the impossible. On a deeper level, one maybe not intended by Phoebe, it relates directly to who she is. The name “Phoebe” comes from the Greek name “Phoibe,” the Greek titan associated with the moon. So, by saying that she’d give her partner the moon, Phoebe is quite literally saying that she’d give them all of herself, everything that she is, as she is the moon.

Phoebe’s Commentary– Phoebe describes the song as the “wanting-to-be-stepped-on feeling: wanting someone to treat you badly because at least they’ll treat you at all.” (via Apple Music)

“You couldn’t have, you couldn’t have (Pre-Chorus)

Stuck your tongue down the throat of somebody 

Who loves you more” (Chorus 2)

This is a lyric that really sticks out to me each time I listen to the song. Every time I hear these few lines I think of the double meaning behind it. In one sense, Phoebe could be saying that there’s no way her partner would find someone to love them more than she does. On the other hand, it could be her saying something along the lines of “If you were looking for someone, why couldn’t it be someone who actually loves and wants you (Phoebe herself included)?” It’s not a huge lyric in the song or within the fandom, but it is one I always come back to.

8. Savior Complex 

Synopsis– In short, a savior complex is, as the name suggests, a want, and maybe even intrinsic need, to “save” others by fixing their problems. Often, this results in the person harboring the complex expending so much energy trying to fix others, especially those who are “emotionally damaged” that they burn themselves out. There are many cases of people who feel that the only way they can feel “good” or “fulfilled” is by “helping” or “fixing” others.

Lyric Pullouts–

“Baby, you’re a vampire 

You want blood and I promised 

I’m a bad liar 

With a savior complex” (Chorus 2)

In these lines, Phoebe compares her partner to a vampire. The analogy of the vampire wanting blood serves as a metaphor of the partner just sucking the life out of her when having to deal with their problems. But as she states, she promised she’d be there with them, and even if it isn’t what she wants, she lies (badly) to keep them happy. Her savior complex gets in the way of letting herself be happy because she just wants to make sure her partner is okay.

“All the bad dreams that you hide 

Show me yours” (Outro)

In the first chorus of the song, Phoebe sings these lines, except with the addition of “I’ll show you mine” after “show me yours.” By the end of the song, she realizes that maybe she wouldn’t go as far as to show her partner hers. The idea of bad dreams serves as a metaphor for the problems that the partner has. She doesn’t complete the statement in this line because she actually wouldn’t show her partner her own issues, most likely because she is too focused on trying to fix theirs and doesn’t want hers to get in the way.

Phoebe’s Commentary– Phoebe explains that this track is “like a sequel to ‘Moon Song.’ It’s like when you get what you asked for and then you’re dating someone who hates themselves. Sonically, it’s one of the only songs [she’s] written in a dream. [She] rolled over in the middle of the night and hummed…[she] woke up and knew what [she] wanted it to be about and then took it in the studio.” (via Apple Music)

9. ICU 

Synopsis– ICU was the third and final track to be released as a single for this record. It was initially announced under this name, a play on words (or letters in this instance) for the phrase “I see you,” but once it was released, she renamed the track to “I See You” due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After she released the full album, the song was retitled again, back to “ICU.” The song follows Phoebe’s breakup with her ex-boyfriend, Marshall Vore, who also happens to be her drummer, both on songs and when she’s touring as a solo artist. She mentions that the breakup was extremely rough for the both of them as they dated for a few years and were extremely codependent, constantly writing songs together, but now they’re very close and still remain best friends (And continue to work together).

Lyric Pullouts–

“If you’re a work of art

I’m standing too close 

I can see the brush strokes” (Verse 2)

This series of lines serves as a metaphor for uncovering the flaws of one’s partner throughout the relationship. If you stand too close to a painting, then you can see the obvious paint lines, details, and brush strokes instead of the picture as a whole, seemingly flawless. Connecting to a relationship, the more time you spend with them, the more obvious their flaws become, in this case, the partner serves as that “work of art,” where it’s outwardly perfect but the closer you become (whether it is in proximity or in connection) it reveals itself to be that only on the surface.

“I used to light you up

Now I can’t even get you to play the drums” (Bridge)

The reason that I like this lyric so much is because of the production side of it. Drums are very heavily used throughout the song (which is very fitting as it is about her drummer) and the bridge is where they’re used probably the most. But after Phoebe utters the line about not being able to get him to play the drums, they cut out entirely and it’s just a guitar chord before they come back for the following line. While it seems like an obvious choice, it’s one that I enjoy every time I listen to the song and one that really caught me off-guard and even made me “freak out” a little when I heard it for the first time. These two lines detail how Phoebe used to be the brightest thing in her partner’s life, but now at the end of their relationship, she’s unable to even inspire him to do the things that he loves.

10. Graceland Too 

Synopsis– The banjo-led track that serves as a precursor to the album’s closing was actually written about one of Phoebe’s closest friends, Julien Baker, who is also Phoebe’s bandmate in their supergroup, boygenius. On the track, Julien actually sings backup along with their fellow bandmate, Lucy Dacus, completing the trio. The other two members each have a song about the same situation that is brought up in “Graceland Too” (“Please Stay” by Lucy and “Favor” by Julien) and all 3 are a part of their setlist when touring as boygenius. The song follows a series of events that took place for Julien, and Phoebe notes it as one that is about loving and caring so deeply for someone who is unhappy with themselves and self-destructive.

Lyric Pullouts–

“Said she knows she lived through it to get to this moment 

Ate a sleeve of saltines on my floor and I knew that (Bridge)

I will do anything you want me to” (Chorus 3)

Julien has had a history of issues around substance abuse and suicidal ideations. But when just in the company of someone who loves and cares for her so much, she knows that it’ll all work out in the way that it was supposed to. I also find it really heartwarming that all it took for Phoebe to know that she’d do any and everything for Julien was solely her eating saltines on the floor in Phoebe’s company. It’s something so small but so special and intimate between them.

 “I will do anything for you 

I will do anything, I will do anything 

Whatever you want me to do, I will do (Chorus)

Whatever she wants” (Outro)

In an interview with Apple Music, Phoebe expresses that “caring about someone who hates themselves and is super self-destructive is the hardest thing about being a person, to me.” Within these lines, she reveals that she’d do quite literally anything to help Julien through her hardships. She conveys that sometimes to help someone, all you can do is be there for them. Sometimes you can’t move heaven and earth for them, even if you really truly want to, but the act of just being there counts a million times more when it’s what they need.

11. I Know The End

Synopsis– Phoebe really took “saving the best for last” to heart when she closed out the album with “I Know The End.” This song is so jam-packed yet incredibly beautiful at the same time. The first 2 minutes and 15 seconds are very calming, almost like that of a lullaby. It begins with her placing her feelings of being on tour and her want to go home and relating those emotions to the situation in which her partner is her home. While they may both do things to somewhat jeopardize their relationship, they always find a way back to each other. Then Phoebe decides to change the tempo and pick up the pace of the song. For the following 2 minutes and 19 seconds, Phoebe recalls American culture and recent happenings of the county, along with a desolated vision of the world. At the 4 minute and 34 second mark, the track is filled with screams, which reflects the apocalyptic theme of both the song and the album as a whole.

Lyric Pullouts–

“Out in the park, we watch the sunset

Talkin’ on a rusty swing set… 

…I’m always pushin’ you away from me 

But you come back with gravity” (Verse 2)

The subject of pushing the partner away mirrors both the idea of the relationship and the literal act of being on the swing set. Not only is she literally pushing them away when they’re swinging, in which they always come back (with gravity), but she is also pushing them away emotionally, and yet they still always come back, almost as if it is with gravity.

“And when I call you come home 

A bird in your teeth” (Verse 2)

This lyric, like in the previous lines, shows that despite Phoebe’s emotional ups and downs, the partner is always ready to come back whenever Phoebe is ready. These lines also serve as a callback to the very similar lyric in “Moon Song,” yet contrast as it seems the partner and Phoebe have now switched places in the relationship.



Phoebe does a phenomenal job of everything an album needs in Punisher. Whether it be vocals, instrumentals, production, lyrics, storytelling (both in individual songs and in the album as a whole), you name it, she has it all. Punisher is what really got me into listening to Phoebe and has introduced me to the broader genre of alternative/indie-rock/indie-folk, and I couldn’t be more thankful. While it’s not what sparked my love for music, it’s what helped me to find my footing of what I really enjoy listening to, and my favorite artist and album of all time. One thing I love about this album is the use of different choruses in almost all of the songs. Typically in songs, you’ll find that the verses change and the chorus remains the same throughout; but many of the songs on Punisher don’t follow that and I find it extremely interesting. And finally–


1. Chinese Satellite

2. I Know The End

3. ICU

4. Graceland Too

5. Moon Song

6. Punisher

7. Kyoto

8. Savior Complex

9. Garden Song

10. Halloween

11. DVD Menu





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