The death-haunted music of Phoebe Bridgers
Memento mori literally means “remember you must die.” It’s an inconvenient fact, a thought to brush away. In Christianity, memento mori is a reminder to live a just life because death and judgment are ever-approaching. Carravagio’s painting of St. Jerome in his study sees the saint poring over a text while a skull watches from the corner of his desk.
Phoebe Bridgers, an American singer-songwriter with a versatile voice and a funny, penetrating and heartbreaking lyrical sensibility, sings songs that seem like they were composed under the watch of a nearby skeleton. Her music stands out for its unflinching, often darkly comic engagement with painful topics—mental health struggles and death prominent among them. These themes dot her four records. Her work includes two solo albums and two records as part of a group: an emo-folk album with the all-woman supergroup boygenius and one under the Better Oblivion Community Center moniker, featuring indie-rock (and sad song) veteran Conor Oberst of the beloved band Bright Eyes.
Her latest record, “Punisher,” does not deviate from the tone of her previous recordings, but its focus on death is noteworthy. On “Punisher,” death is double-edged. On the one hand, it shows up in familiar, comfortable forms—a skeleton costume and Halloween. As she sings on the record’s closer, “I Know The End,” the haunted house comes “with a picket fence.” These images are ubiquitous and defanged. We associate them with the suburban tranquility of trick-or-treating, not the end of earthly life. But Bridgers is also grappling with death’s inescapability. As a result, the record serves as a plea to take note of death’s reality, made even more resonant in our current moment of the pandemic and racist violence. When death emerges on “Punisher,” it serves as a musical argument for the listener to embrace the inevitability of death, not run away from it.
“Punisher,” argues for the listener to embrace the inevitability of death, not run away from it.
On “Punisher,” Bridgers’s various memento mori are soft yet suggestive. On the cover art for “Garden Song,’’ the album’s first single, she gazes playfully into the camera dressed in a skeleton suit, her shadow looming behind her. She presents a cheeky, kitschy version of death. Her face is illuminated as if by a flashlight under bed covers. It’s about as spooky as the skeletons dancing around the churchyard in Disney’s 1929 “Silly Symphony” short.
The single’s title is written in a grocery-list scrawl above her. It calls to mind the verdant image of a garden growing, which gently clashes with the casual morbidity of the suit. Yet even a goofy specter of death is still death. Even growing things will die, she smiles at us. Bridgers sees life’s most painful realities wrapped up in such normal sights as gardens, baseball games and convenience stores. Anything can be a memento mori if you have the right perspective.
Indeed, in the first lines of the song, a “skinhead neighbor goes missing” under mysterious circumstances. A garden is planted immediately after. Bridgers’s spectral narration leaves unclear what happened to the skinhead, but the garden is a memorial nonetheless. As she says later, in a lovely duet with her rumble-voiced Dutch tour manager, “Everything’s growing in our garden/ but you don’t have to know that it’s haunted.” The song is about many things: her childhood home, growing up and letting go. But it’s also shrouded by death, a lingering, gothic overhang.
On the album’s title track, Bridgers has a one-sided conversation with Elliott Smith as the song wanders through the L.A. neighborhood where the late singer-songwriter lived some years before his untimely death at age 34. Smith hovers over the song, distant and inaccessible as Bridgers wonders if meeting him would have been the same as her fans meeting her. Death is a furrow dragged through this song, an inescapable fact at the center of it. She will never meet Smith alive; her conversation with her idol can only happen beyond the bend of this life. “What if I told you I feel like I know you/ But we never met?” Bridgers asks. The production is similarly wistful. It twinkles and squeaks with electronic percussion, and Bridgers’s voice is luminescent among deliberate strikes of piano.
Remembering death is also a reminder, for Bridgers, of everything she does not have, especially faith. In “Chinese Satellite’’ Bridgers laments her lack of belief. She pins her wishes on the only thing blinking in the night sky: an orbiting spacecraft, probably Chinese, as metronome blips send her into the chorus: “I want to believe/ Instead, I look at the sky and I feel nothing.” She is appalled at evangelicals with hateful picket signs but says she would join them if ascribing to their beliefs meant she could see her loved ones when they die. Death’s finality makes belief appealing. Musically, the song shows some of this angst. It rushes toward a fractured solo, a flurry of strings and glancing blows of guitar throughout.
Memento mori, in its Christian implication, requires some sort of grander vision. Death is not the end, we believe. Instead it is something to be prepared for, and to ultimately transcend. Though Bridgers’s vision is not a religious one, there is certainly something hoped for amid the death in and around these songs.
Though Bridgers’s vision is not a religious one, there is something hoped for amid the death in and around these songs.
Bridgers’s vision of death is spelled out in the album’s transcendent closer, “I Know The End”’—an apocalyptic fever dream that begins delicately, as Bridgers sings of finding home. It then catapults into a breakneck road trip through the end times, led by a rollicking horn section. A random pastiche of America streams by the open windows of this song, slaughterhouses and “America first rap-country’’ and the fear of God. U.F.O.s are descending from the sky. The album’s final memento mori is a prophetic billboard: “The End is Near.” Bridgers concludes, as a final sardonic aside, “I turned around, there was nothing there/ Yeah, I guess the end is here.’’
Bridgers doesn’t end up believing. This is not a conversion record. Death is and remains the end of the story for Bridgers. But its existence seems to be a clarion call for seizing onto brighter, broader moments of joy. Bridgers gestures toward this joy in brief luminous glimpses throughout the record. In the gorgeous “Graceland Too,” gentle banjo plucks follow the protagonist as she walks out of a mental ward into bright sunlight and sets a G.P.S. to Graceland, looking for salvation in music: “Predictably winds up thinking of Elvis/ And wonders if he believed songs could come true.” Or, in “Moon Song,” it’s when she sees the smile of a loved one in a dream bigger than it ever broke in waking life. It is the hand of the doctor over her liver in “Garden Song,” saying that her “resentment’s getting smaller.”
The record ends determined. Death is certain, and in Bridgers’s final vision we’re all there because death comes for everyone: our brothers and sisters and moms and dads and even the America-first country-rappers and the skinheads. Despite all the reminders of death across this record, Bridgers is still going to sing in its face, even welcome its solid advance, all to preserve the small sacred moments among friends and lovers.
Bridgers is still going to sing in death’s face, even welcome its solid advance, all to preserve the small sacred moments among friends and lovers.
The video for “I Know the End” ends with Bridgers tenderly kissing what could be an older version of herself. Maybe it’s mortality she tastes on those lips, but it comes as no nasty surprise. “Be alert at all times,” Christ says of the end times in Luke’s Gospel. Bridgers is saying something similar, though with no final judgment or bodily resurrection in mind. Instead, when the end comes, she offers a consoling shrug: “Either way, we’re not alone.” The cathartic screams that dwindle into hoarse, breathless gasps in the record’s final moments are hardly despairing. They are an invitation to greater, common, exultant life—while we still have it.