About a week ago, on a night when the smoke blowing down from the mountains resembled mist from far away, I was sitting in a Zoom class discussion about a Russian short story when I had an unanticipated yet unmistakable feeling that the world was about to end. That is, upon reflection, a poor description; this feeling was not spurred by anxiety or panic—as a good number of my premonitions of apocalypse have been in the past—but rather was much more in response to the various things happening almost simultaneously in my periphery. Accompanying the wildfire smoke in Colorado—where I am studying remotely for the semester—were a set of distractions which competed for my attention while I attempted to dutifully annotate my coursework, imagining I was in a classroom in Boger Hall instead of at my childhood desk.
During that hour-and-twenty-minute class session, my typically quiet neighborhood somehow set off two car alarms and a fire alarm, which overlapped their two-tone cacophonies as if they were singing a round. About midway through the discussion, the spring in my curtain rod on the other side of my room collapsed with an exhausted clatter to the floor. My Zoom disconnected from the meeting twice, both times while I was mid-way through articulating a realization about Golgol’s literary form (this week, my classmates assured me that I froze in an elegant position; I do not believe them). As the finishing touch, my phone—which has been glitching ever since I got a too-good-to-be-true price on a screen replacement and will sometimes starts playing whatever audio I last listened to—picked the middle of this class to revive itself. While trying to maintain my muted composure, I scrambled to turn off my Spotify app, which was unwelcomingly blasting the outro to Phoebe Bridgers’ “I Know the End.”
It was fitting, but not paranormal, that this was the song to play in such a moment of surreality. After all, I have been listening to “Punisher,” Bridgers’s latest album, essentially on a loop since it came out this June, and it is often the last thing that has come out of my phone’s speakers. Sure, I flirted with “Folklore,” had a substantial fling with “Fetch the Bolt Cutters” and assembled playlists of childhood classics to pull me out of my pandemic funk. I even took to coffee-house jazz while I was working, just for the sake of pretending I was in a coffeehouse and not at my dining room table. But in a summer with an atmosphere my father—inspired by the onslaught of bad pandemic news coupled with the dry, beating heat—labeled “sunshine noir,” there was something specifically comforting about listening to music that felt like it was made for a global moment of gloom and doom.
A common word associated with Bridgers’ indie-folk is “haunting,” perhaps because of the lilting timbre of her voice, because of the frequent presence of dreams, ghosts, or death in her lyrics, or because she has taken to wearing (as she does on the cover of this recent album) a black sweatsuit with a to-scale print of skeleton bones. These are all very literal readings; they could also be said, to an extent, of many indie-folk artists, particularly female vocalists who sing a lot of sad ballads, such as Bridgers’ “boygenius” bandmates, Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus.
But there’s also something I find deeply haunting about Bridgers’ music because of the way in which it is intimate, because of how it clings to me, and within me, for a long time after I hear it. I am reminded of the odd phenomenon of watching scary movies on a date; there is an expectation that hand holding and shrinking into each other’s arms will come along with the urge to remind ourselves that we are here, safe, on the couch, and not there, in danger, on the screen. To be haunted involves fear, a confrontation with the macabre, but it also prompts physical and emotional closeness.
In a summer of much fear and not much closeness, it makes sense why “Punisher”—which is Bridgers’ second solo album—haunted me in the way it did. Although people, including Bridgers’ herself, joke about her pattern of writing “sad-girl music,” it’s not sad in a pining, wallowing, weeping type of sadness that often gets falsely ascribed to young, emo girls who listen to sad music. It’s not saccharine, nor is it recognizable as anything other than sincere.
Part of this is the specificity of Bridgers’ lyrics, which has also elicited the overwrought comparisons to Bob Dylan. In “Moon Song” she sings:
“Now I’m dreaming / And you’re singing at my birthday / I’ve never seen you smiling so big / It’s nautical themed / And there’s something I’m supposed to say / But can’t for the life of me remember what it is.”
In this song, as in others on the album like “Savior Complex,” the lyrics tell of a desire which is impossible to fulfill or which, if fulfilled, would be damaging to the self. This desire is loving someone who is not equipped to love you back, simply because they are not equipped to love themselves. In coming to terms with the circumstances, there is sadness, but there is also some sort of acceptance that comes from recognizing things as they are.
Sometimes this desire for the impossible manifests in the singer wanting to believe in miracles, but finding herself stuck in a state of hopelessness. In “Chinese Satellite,” the chorus is a leap into the unknown, a plea for something larger than the self to connect with:
“Took a tour to see the stars / But they weren’t out tonight,” Bridgers sings, her voice echoing against the space she is singing into, “So I wished hard on a Chinese satellite / 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.”
Since March, I have spent a lot of time longing for outcomes beyond my control, wanting to be somewhere other than where I am, looking for signs and meaning in a situation which, at times, has felt existential. I think about the beginning of last semester, when my biggest concerns involved getting papers written and getting to class on time, and I can’t help but feel embarrassed at my naïveté, as if I had been wishing on stars without realizing that the brightness I was speaking to was flashing with red lights. I don’t always feel this way; I know that this pandemic will end, that I still have so much to personally be grateful for, that my losses have been minimal compared to what so many others have lost and are still losing. I think I am still an optimist at heart. But the grief of it all, the instability, the knowledge that the people controlling the situation continue to perpetuate lies as they ignore the ticking of the death toll—it is impossible to ignore the heartbreak in which our country is engulfed. Even as I go about my daily life, attending Zoom classes and working on thesis research, this reality haunts me.
Every day, when my eyes inevitably start to ache from blue light, I put on my mask and go on long, ambling walks without a destination. I believe it was on one of these walks that I heard “I Know the End” for the first time. It was sometime in late June, when I was just starting to think that, even by the fall, things would quite possibly not be back to normal.
It’s hard to believe that “I Know the End” is not two different songs: the first a classic Phoebe Bridgers ballad comprised of verse, chorus, verse, chorus, and the second comprised of the outro, which takes a sudden turn into metal chaos and euphoria. The tones that open the song are a bit obscured by static, as if they are emanating from an old radio or a distant UFO. Then Bridgers’ voice, smooth and hushed, sings of homesickness, of displacement, of wanting to be somewhere she is not with someone who is not with her.
“Close my eyes / fantasize / three clicks and I’m home,” she sings.
With these lyrics, I remember the look on Dorothy’s face when she clicks her ruby slippers at the end of “The Wizard of Oz,” her eyes squeezed shut, to will herself into another reality. Bridgers, like Dorothy, romanticizes “the quiet life,” telling herself that “there’s no place like my room.”
But whoever she is singing to must leave for some reason, and things can no longer stay the same. Home is changing:
“Not even the burnouts are out here anymore / and you had to go” Bridgers sings. For Bridgers, this “you” leaving catalyzes her own realization that she, too, must go, must accept the change and give into it.
“I’m not gonna go down with my hometown in a tornado,” she sings in the next chorus, “I’m gonna chase it / I know, I know, I know.”
“Punisher,” as an album, seems as if it was meant to be played live to a crowd of fans who know all the words. Because of the pandemic, this has been impossible, leaving Bridgers and so many other artists to resort to live-streamed performances. In a performance of “I Know the End” on Tiny Desk Concerts, Bridgers exchanged the tiny desk at NPR offices for a much bigger desk, singing in front of a high-quality green screened Oval Office. Dressed in a gray blazer and with her bandmates, dressed as secret service agents, beside her, she looked like a better politician than anyone else currently occupying the White House. She played the first part of the song acoustic, and it sounded like many of her songs from her first album, “Stranger in the Alps,” through which Bridgers became known for her haunting melodies and sombre lyrics.
In this performance, after Bridgers sings the line about chasing the tornado, the screen flickers, the illusion is revealed and the Oval Office facade is revealed to be a wall of green fabric. In the recorded track, at this transition from the first part of the song to the second, a string instrument plays an arching melody before sliding up to a pitch almost higher than we can hear. Bridgers exchanges her acoustic guitar for an electric to sing the lead-in to the outro, which seems to focus on a drive through wasteland America: a 21st century, apocalyptic Oz. The lyrics, crescendoing through a four-chord cycle, tell of damage and decay, but also of freedom. This is what started playing from my phone that night, as I tried to focus on my class discussion.
“Went looking for a creation myth / Ended up with a pair of cracked lips / Windows down, scream along / To some America first rap country song /A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall / Slot machines, fear of God,” Bridgers sings, the intensity building.
These are common sights, the opposite of holy. They are eerily dystopic, but they are also recognizable.
“Windows down, heater on,” she continues, “Big bolts of lightning hanging low / Over the coast, everyone’s convinced / It’s a government drone or alien spaceship. / Either way, we’re not alone / I’ll find a new place to be from…No, I’m not afraid to disappear / the billboard said ‘the end is near’ / I turned around, there was nothing there / Yeah, I guess, the end is here.”
The end is epic. As the instrumentation swells into a triumphant finish, complete with horns, it sounds like a concert with a packed crowd, swaying and singing “The end is here” repeatedly. In the music video, this is the point at which Bridgers, in an empty amphitheater, begins making out with what appears to be a younger version of herself. If the theater were full, the dancing this end would inspire would be uncontrolled, a cathartic release of tension in the body which now, when we regiment the borders of our bodies and risk-assess every surface we touch, seems unimaginable. At the peak of this ending, Bridgers begins to scream, an animal sound that wordlessly conveys all her frustration, elation and overwhelming emotion, all of which can be told only through music. In the Tiny Desk performance, dozens of fans appear in little squares to scream with her, from their cars, from their basements, from wherever they have been in self-isolation. The scream is loud and communal; it is probably what all of us need to do from time to time during this pandemic.
In yet another turn, the song does not end with the screaming, nor does it end with the crowd. As the instrumentation peters out, we can hear only Bridgers, breathing noisily into her microphone as if mimicking a roaring concert, the trace of something she longs for, but which is currently impossible. Still, in her quiet breaths, I can hear the echo of the noise, the raucous music made for dancing, the screams which, though unnerving, are deeply intimate nonetheless.
Sara McCrea can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @sara_mccrea.