Apocalypses are powerful entities. They represent full-scale calamitous events with the potential to wipe out everything we know to be familiar and true. For artists, they’re an opportunity to experiment with our imaginative endurance as human beings, an attempt to put to words the entropy that manifests at the end of the world. In reality, apocalyptic occurrences seem unfathomable, entirely void of rhyme or reason and almost always end up hitting us when we least expect it.
Improbable as they may be, we’re endlessly trying (and failing) to answer the end-all-be-all questions we know frighteningly little about (When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? anyone?). Although the endings apparent in my own life may not be on par with those of alien invasions or natural disasters, the scale is irrelevant in the dissection of the feeling itself. However brief or insignificant in the grand scheme of things, endings represent a paralyzing inability to accept the end of one chapter of your life and transition to the start of another.
With “I Know The End,” Phoebe Bridgers closes her sophomore album, Punisher, with not only a bang but also a whimper. She plunges straight into the depths of the murky waters of inevitability, life after death and how we as human beings cope with the ending of things big and small. Bridgers watches the final scenes of intimate relationships in her life play out and encapsulates her ironic refusal to revel in the downtime, to make the most of staying at home doing nothing after months of longing for just that. (Yes, her pre-quarantine predictions were eerily spot-on and you can do with that what you will.)
As a cluster of details makes up the minor endings in Bridgers’s own life, we catch glimpses of the outside crumbling in parallel ruin. Just as a break-up is finalized, she knowingly foreshadows a catastrophic event on the horizon. It’s not an if, but a matter of “when the sirens sound.” We gradually get a sense of the larger forces at play here as images of a deserted town reside in the background of her own awareness that “not even the burnouts are out here anymore.”
Ever an agent of the apocalypse at heart, Bridgers acknowledges the usual suspects, questioning whether an unnamed object hovering in the sky is a “government drone or an alien spaceship.” Her evasive response of “either way, we’re not alone” is foreboding and has an ominous rather than comforting connotation. It’s not so much about how the world ends, but what we are left with after. The specifics have no real consequences here as she’s far more concerned with the ending itself — the acceptance of the cataclysmic, earth-shattering event — in order to address the perhaps even scarier question: what next?
Like every other standing high school senior of the class of 2020, I spent much of my time post-graduation (or in my case, post-makeshift ceremony in the bus drive-through of my high school) in a stasis of sorts. I kept waiting for my mind to catch up to my body, to dramatically come to terms with the fact that life as I knew it was forever gone; that my future would resemble very little of the long-awaited post-high school plans I had dreamed of. The first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic were weird, but in my head, it was still nothing more than a temporary break, a pause from the regularly scheduled programming of my reality that would soon get fixed by the forces that be. I kept busy with school, talked with friends on the phone for hours and patiently watched my prom dress gather dust hanging from the closet door.
By the time summer hit, things had begun to permanently set in. I was reeling from the loss of a loved one after months of separation from friends and relatives, and I was constantly anxious about starting a so-called new chapter in my life when the last one had seemingly never ended. I was exuding nervous energy, endlessly frustrated and bogged down by a growing restlessness and longing for a portion of my youth that I felt was unjustifiably snatched from me right as I reached the precipice. There was none of that closure every Bildungsroman I had grown up reading and watching had so earnestly promised. No graduation ceremony, no prom, no final school musical. No happy ending. I knew they were inconsequential things in the long run, but they could only grow in stature as I built them up in my head instead of living them out in reality.
Naturally, I spent far too much of my time mourning what a petty waste my 17th year around the sun was. These unresolved thoughts and feelings raced around my mind unabated by not only the remnants of the senior year I did have but the imminent prospects of my freshman year of college. The coming-of-age stories that I usually sought such comfort in only served to further fuel my depressive spiraling and bitter resentment that this isn’t how things were supposed to be.
Listening to “I Know The End” for the first time was like something clicked into place. It communicated this feeling I couldn’t quite seem to put into words, of grappling with the ending of a thing you saw coming all along, but something that still hits you with a sudden shock all the same. I got lost in Bridgers’s vividly-imagined chaos, soaked in the sadness and tried to process it all. It’s difficult not to get fully submerged in the song itself; Bridgers’s immersive detail in her writing only makes the mutual catharsis of experiencing her musically-actualized apocalypse all the more visceral for the listener.
For once, someone wasn’t sugarcoating it. My own inner melodrama could make it feel as though the world was collapsing in on itself and the negative energy I was bottling up inside of me was desperate for expulsion. I didn’t need someone to tell me it was all going to be okay because everyone in the world had just unanimously decided that it was, in fact, not going to be okay in the slightest. I was 17 years old and had nothing figured out, but I wasn’t supposed to. The problem was that no one else had it figured out, either — not even the people that I thought always did.
Although Bridgers’s apocalyptic ending is certainly not a happy one, it felt more akin to an embodied dreamscape than a nightmare, a cinematic experience I projected upon heavily within the walls of my childhood bedroom. The first half of the song floats along with Wizard of Oz references and wallows in the circumstances of endings itself — the end of a tour in one verse, a break-up in another. But her eyes keep glancing to the horizon as she iterates, “I gotta go now / I know, I know, I know.” In the midst of it all weighing down on me, that same restless energy buzzed about, that urge to risk everything just for a chance to peek over the edge of the cliff and catch a glimpse of what was waiting beyond.
It was this nagging desire to pack it all up and make a change, any change at all. What resonated with me most was the fact that in the midst of all of Bridgers’s resolutions, she seemingly had nothing figured out. And that was where I was at, unable to go back to the way things were before, but with no real way to move forward. She so precisely captures the sensation of feeling as though you have nothing left to do but stand directly in the eye of the storm and scream it out.
Never one to disappoint, Bridgers takes us right up to the edge and promptly dives in headfirst into that chasm of nothingness. There’s something so soothing about the way her voice transitions from the first couple of verses to the third as she kicks the rest of the song into high gear. Bridgers steadily picks up the pace, hyper-fixated on the thing looming ahead and just out of reach. We’re jolted forward along with her and set into motion as Bridgers vibrantly paints the scene with details of destruction rushing past her: “Windows down, heater on / Big bolts of lightning hanging low.”
Lying on my bed, feeling everything a thousand times too strongly, this last verse generates that image of the final character driving off into the open road, reminiscent of hundreds of scenes in film. It calls to my mind everything from David Bowie’s “Heroes” echoing in the tunnel scene of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” to Elliot Smith’s “Miss Misery” trailing the credits of “Good Will Hunting.” I’d be remiss not to remark on the beauty of this song coming full circle with the record as a whole; a classic movie ending being quite fitting for an album that starts off with a literal “DVD Menu,” as the melody interwoven in that first track can be heard again in this song right at the beginning of what I like to call “the chaos sequence.”
And it’s just euphoric enough to make you forget that we’re not in the midst of a coming-of-age film but a full-blown apocalypse. No one is riding off into the sunset quite yet. As the song climaxes and threatens to collapse into itself, the chanting of “the end is here” getting wholly drowned out by the orchestral waves, Bridgers, a lover of carefully crafted chaos, resorts to unabashed guttural screams. In case you couldn’t tell already, folks, we have reached the final destination for all hell to break loose. It’s the ending of all endings, and Bridgers isn’t about to let you forget it. Everything erupts all at once, sonically clashing and blending in perfect harmony as she invites you to scream along, to let everything inside you go. There’s a pure rawness to the strain in her voice by the end of it as her unleashed fury dwindles down and the listener is left with nothing but the sound of her deep inhales and mere echoes of her whispery screams.
There’s a reason my favorite lyric from this song is the line “A haunted house with a picket fence / To float around and ghost my friends.” It’s a sort of whimsical anomaly to the rest of the lyrics, but there’s this quiet contentment and sad honesty to it that I resonate with a little too much for my own good. Bridgers is known to sprinkle such analogies in her music, which she self describes as “silly death,” but it stays with me long after the sound of Bridgers’s screaming (and my own) have faded away.
Is this light at the end of the tunnel a mere fantasy? A figment of her imagination? It’s unclear, but it creeps up on you smack-dab in the middle of her soul-searching joyride to hell, and depicts the potential for an ending that wasn’t necessarily in sight before. The ability to “know the end” doesn’t mean she has the power to change it, but understands that no matter how bad things get, when the dust settles, there’s still a bit of peace to be found in the midst of it all. Just as the world around Bridgers is crumbling to pieces, she comes to this realization, this half-formed daydream. And even though it sometimes takes an all-out implosion of your life to find it, I hold onto the belief that you can make it to that destination all the same.
Daily Arts Contributor Serena Irani can be reached at email@example.com.